Set in the insular world of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, TWO LOVERS is a classic romantic drama, with Joaquin Phoenix giving a raw and vulnerable performance as Leonard, a charismatic but troubled young man who moves back into his childhood home following a recent heartbreak. While recovering under the watchful eye of his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Monoshov), Leonard meets two women in quick succession: Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a mysterious and beautiful neighbor who is exotic and out-of-place in Leonard’s staid world, and Sandra, the lovely and caring daughter of a businessman who is buying out his family’s dry-cleaning business.
Leonard becomes deeply infatuated by Michelle, who seems poised to fall for him, but is having a self-destructive affair with a married man. At the same time, mounting pressure from his family pushes him towards committing to Sandra. Leonard is forced to make an impossible decision between the impetuousness of desire and the comfort of love or risk falling back into the darkness that nearly killed him.
Russian-American director James Gray (The Yards) has never made any secret of his affection for the Italian crime drama. That operatic influence permeated his first three features, but Two Lovers takes more cues from intimate French films and angst-ridden Russian fiction (specifically Dostoevsky’s short story “White Nights”). Aspiring photographer Leonard (Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix) returns to Brooklyn after a failed relationship only to find himself torn between two paramours of opposing personalities. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw, 3:10 to Yuma) represents the safe choice, while Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow, recalling her streetwise character in P.T. Anderson’s Hard Eight) presents more of a challenge–she’s a party girl in love with a married man–but Michelle excites him in ways the thoughtful and attentive Sandra, a drug-company rep, does not. Gray leaves it up to viewers to determine whether Leonard should factor religion into his decision; his supportive parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Monoshov) would love to see him pair up with the Jewish Sandra, but mostly they want their only son to be happy. If he joins his father–and Sandra’s–in the dry-cleaning game, that would be a happy bonus (the men are working on a merger). Though Leonard’s bipolar quirks threaten to derail the proceedings–it’s hard to believe two beautiful women would gravitate towards such a socially awkward fellow–Two Lovers marks an improvement over Gray’s previous movie, We Own the Night, and a welcome return to the picturesque Brighton Beach neighborhood of Little Odessa, his auspicious debut. –Kathleen C. Fennessy