151 Best Movies You've Never Seen by Leonard Maltin by Leonard Maltin. Copyright 2010 by Leonard Maltin.
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151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen
1. Two Lovers
Directed by James Gray
Screenplay by James Gray and Richard Menello
The first great film I saw in 2009, Two Lovers is a vivid romantic drama that’s meant to express larger-than-life emotions. When he brought his film to my class at USC, writer-director James Gray explained that he wanted to emulate the films of the 1970s that exposed their characters so nakedly you almost felt uncomfortable. In this instance, I actually felt exhilarated.
I also knew that despite its marquee value Two Lovers had failed to attract a major distributor and would never reach a wide audience in theatrical release.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a fragile young man who has moved back in with his parents at their Brighton Beach apartment in Brooklyn after a failed suicide attempt. It’s here that he chances to meet a new neighbor, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. She doesn’t mind spending time with him, but she’s self-absorbed and represents trouble with a capital T. That doesn’t stop him from falling in love with her, almost to the point of obsession. She represents glamour, adventure, the good life in Manhattan and beyond ... even danger. Then his family introduces him to a “nice girl” from the neighborhood, played by Vinessa Shaw. Unlike Paltrow, she actually likes him and is happy to pursue a real relationship. (It doesn’t hurt that her father is also doing business with Phoenix’s dad.)
Phoenix tries juggling the two women who represent opposing forces in his life. One woman is dangerous but alluring; the other is sweet and safe. Two Lovers deals with fate and the choices we make.
Gray knows this isn’t typical story fodder for a contemporary film, and acknowledges that the raw emotions his actors convey lack the layering of irony and cool that today’s audiences are accustomed to. Yet that’s precisely what sets Two Lovers apart. One scene is accompanied by Henry Mancini’s lush orchestral piece “Lujon,” from the early 1960s. It is used to convey Phoenix’s feelings about the glamour of Manhattan at night, and it’s perfect. Throughout the story, Gray finds ways to share his character’s swirling emotions.
Like Gray’s other films (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night), this one has an almost operatic quality, and even utilizes opera on the sound track. Two Lovers is infused with cinematic homages, as well, some more obvious than others. (Vertigo is clearly an influence.)
I can’t imagine two actors who could inhabit the leading roles better than Phoenix and Paltrow, and they are ably supported by Shaw and Isabella Rossellini—who, I have to admit, wouldn’t have been my first choice to play a Jewish mother. But, like everything else in the movie, she hits just the right notes.
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