A Brooklyn set romance in which a man (Pheonix) is torn between the family friend his parents want him to marry and his beautiful but volatile new neighbor.
If two lovers really is Joaquin Phoenix’s last film — acting apparently holding less attraction now for the 34-year-old than his music — that will be a great pity. One, because he’s wonderful here. Two, because the film isn’t quite as terrific as he is in it. As romantic dramas go, it’s terribly sad. If you were living Leonard’s life, you’d think of killing yourself, too.
James Gray, who has starred Phoenix in three of his four films, loves Brighton Beach as the son of immigrants settled there himself. This is not, mind, the Brighton Beach of a Neil Simon play, where a family home is full of Brooklyn bons mots and riotous uproar. Gray usually dwells on criminality and betrayal as well as family, and Russian mobsters have hitherto featured strongly in his dark mood-pieces (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own The Night). It’s a departure for him to look into an aching but hopeful heart, even if it’s a place not a lot happier for the protagonist being a decent, ordinary guy.
Instead of being torn between good and evil, lonely Leonard is torn between very different women. He certainly needs one; at least some of his depression stems from the unhappy end of a previous relationship. The rest of it may be attributed to Gray’s visual style, which can be described as assured bleakness. Leonard’s anxious, well-meaning parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) thrust him on the daughter of fellow dry-cleaners, and Leonard passively goes along with the arranged romance because she is kind-hearted, not unattractive and a little too desperate to please. One worries why; he’s dishy, yes, but heavy-going, date-wise. But his head is turned when a blonde shiksa moves in upstairs. She’s an improbable apparition in this ’hood, but at least as unhappy as Leonard, in love with her married boss (Elias Koteas), impulsive, neurotic and crisis-prone. Paltrow plays this perfectly, fun in her manic phases and with legs that go all the way up. So Leonard is naturally oblivious to the hurt she promises and goes about winning her over in touching and painfully pitiable ways.
The pervasive air of gloom actually lifts in a dramatic turn of affairs, and you almost feel warmed by what eventually happens. It’s not the stuff of all-time romances, then, but certainly a timeless slice of life.
Fine performances notably from Phoenix still dont make this an easy sell. But it is atmospheric, accomplished and intense.