If Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a lovelorn bachelor in James Gray's Two Lovers, were twelve years old, the movie might make a touching, if not noticeably fresh, romantic drama for tweens. Not that adults don't nurse unhealthy crushes and regress madly under the pressure of hopeless infatuation, which may be Gray's point. But though Two Lovers is based on a story by Dostoyevsky that was adapted by Luchino Visconti into the film White Nights, Gray's lack of interpretive distance from his subject, coupled with extreme overacting from his lead actor, results in melodrama that sits up and begs to be farce.
As Leonard, a jilted thirtysomething who's moved back in with his Brighton Beach Jewish parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov), Phoenix lays on the pimply youth body language so thick that it wouldn't be altogether surprising to see him twitch at his underpants to adjust them over his rear end. Either that, or this really is, as announced, Phoenix's last film, and he's giving it all he's got and then some. Watching a physique as manly as Phoenix's contorted into the kind of orgy of bodily discomfort normally associated with Robin Williams makes you want to avert your eyes, or giggle, or both.
Licking his wounds from a broken engagement and hinting broadly at a psychiatric disorder, Leonard is a mess, a walking gender reversal of He's Just Not That into You who has no idea how to approach women, yet hangs upon their every mixed message. For reasons unknown this shambling mama's boy quickly becomes irresistible to two luscious beauties from opposite ends of his comfort zone. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) — the handsome, compatible and appealingly forthright daughter of Jewish parents who are taking over Leonard's family's dry cleaning business — lays her cards squarely on the table early on. With his parents' endorsement, Leonard goes along — at least until he lays eyes on his neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a neurotic tease who takes him clubbing and summons him to nocturnal rooftop summits about the uneven progress of her affair with an older married man. What follows is a clumsy stab at Vertigo laced with bits of Marty. Leonard gazes up and across the balcony at Michelle, who aims her shiny shiksa mystique at him while torturing the poor baby with be-your-best-friend disavowals and bipolar hissy fits that would raise a red flag for anyone but Leonard, who sees only a kindred spirit.
Had Gray stepped back a little from his story, which has the innocently heartfelt feel of an autobiography, he might take his characters less seriously and venture into some commentary about the social conditions that encourage modern adults to act like sulky teenagers while crashing with Mom and Dad. Paltrow is very good, but Michelle is such a cipher — a push-pull manipulator we've seen plenty of since the high school movie became a good bet at the box office — that neither she nor Leonard offers the audience anything to wonder about until close to the end.
What Two Lovers does have is the same finely tuned sense of place and class that lent Gray's first film about Brighton Beach's Russian mafia, Little Odessa, its grungy beauty. The dun-colored, overstuffed little apartment and the boyhood paraphernalia in Leonard's tiny bedroom tell us everything we need to know about why he would long for any escape — just as the loving, concerned parents and their tight group of Workmen's Circle friends remind us why he might be pulled to stay. What you make of Leonard's behavior at the end of Two Lovers will depend in part on whether you read It's a Wonderful Life as the uplifting tale of a depressive redeemed from suicide by family, or the tragedy of a man who gave up on adventure for a domestic cocoon.