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Every time I walk out of a James Gray movie, I feel myself to make sure that I'm still in one piece. It's not the odd gunshot or outburst of physical violence that unnerves me; it's the leaking of masculine resolve and the curdling of honor that terrifies me. Mr Gray's movies are all about weakness (especially in the guise of its manly avatar, recklessness), and they never fail to leave me surprised by the fact of my own survival. I've been weak; I've certainly been reckless. After spending some time in the dark with Mr Gray, I'm amazed that I'm still alive and at large. Surely I'll be arrested when I try to leave the theatre.
There are no guns or gunshots in Two Lovers. There is no real violence of any kind. A very muted suicide attempt opens the film. A man walks along a pier, holding some dry cleaning. Next thing you know, he jumps into Sheepshead Bay. You wonder two things: will the movie be a flashback that leads up to this scene? And: will the suicide attempt work? It's hard for a normally alert person to drown voluntarily, at least in still water; at some point, the autonomic nervous system takes over and grabs a rain check. Meanwhile, you notice (especially if you've just arrived and not yet found a seat) that the film is rather dim, even for late afternoon. The man thrashes to the surface, is pulled from the water, and gruffly declines further assistance. It's dim on land, too. The man walks off, without the dry cleaning. You remember to breathe.
It soon becomes very clear that the story of Two Lovers is one of the oldest in the book, but by then it's too late, thanks in large part to Mr Gray's ability to light not only his actors but their characters by invitingly obliging us to peer at them, to dismiss the film as familiar. It's precisely because you know how such stories go that you want to see how things will work out this time. Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) ought to marry Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), and yet for that very reason he's reluctant. Sandra is a very nice girl indeed, and pretty, too; but she is the daughter of a business friend of his father, Reuben (Moni Moshonov), and Reuben plans to sell his dry-cleaning business to Sandra's father. Everybody hopes that Leonard will keep the business in the family by marrying into it. But Leonard is not cut out for the routines of dry cleaning. He was going to be a lawyer, but a bipolar condition (very lightly alluded to, even if we do see the stitches on Leonard's wrists) got in the way. Marrying Sandra and continuing the family business naturally looks just like a living tomb to Leonard.
Since Leonard is a good boy, he would probably marry Sandra without objection — it's clear that he really likes her — if it were not for the sudden appearance, in the Brighton Beach apartment building where he lives in his boyhood room, of Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman who, whatever her weaknesses, is not interested in her own beauty. When we meet Michelle, she is being yelled at by a man whom she claims is her father. Watching Leonard look at Michelle, we know that something vital has been awakened in him. But there is a conflict between Leonard's vitality and the sepia-toned interiors in which Leonard and his family try to pursue respectable, normal life. The tension is great not because the romantic and career decisions of a reluctant dry cleaner have any world-historical significance but because Leonard is as real to us as a family member. This is Mr Phoenix's third movie with Mr Gray, and the efficiency with which the two men lay Leonard's human nature bare would be remarkable if we weren't paying too much attention to Leonard to notice. Michelle's arrival on the scene means that we get to know Leonard even better. In the first scene after the two neighbors meet, Leonard walks out of his building, thinking his thoughts, and then he sees Michelle. We don't see Michelle, not right away, but we know that he has spotted her. There follows an endearing sequence in which he tails her to the subway station and pretends to run into her by chance. Feinting his way behind her, lurking behind advertising panels, Leonard sizes up his chances with Michelle on a second-by-second basis. Mr Phoenix invests the scene with all the excitement that it has for Leonard.
The bad news, however, is that Michelle genuinely likes Leonard. She adopts him as her "new best friend," and as a brother to whom she can turn to her in her struggles with Ronald, the hot-shot Manhattan lawyer whose mistress she is (he pays her rent; the apartment is near his mother's). It is not hard for Leonard's infatuation to gorge on Michell's company. On the contrary, he arrives very soon at a state of disgust. He's all too aware that Michelle is "bad news." Michelle has a drug problem, and she's in a bad relationship. He knows he ought to be courting Sandra. The way Leonard sneaks in and out of his parents' apartment tells us as well as any overt argument that he knows what his mother would think of all this.
And what a mother: Isabella Rossellini plays Ruth Kraditor. Like Mr Phoenix, she can say a lot without opening her mouth. That's the source of further tension in this movie: unlike Michelle, who is unencumbered by bourgeois self-restraint, but who also says what she likes to hear, Leonard and Ruth don't speak except to speak their minds — so that when they do have a candid conversation near the end, you can count on every word. Ruth may be worried sick about her boy, but she's not going to suffocate him with concern. She has the confidence to know that her son knows that she loves him. Leonard himself has very little confidence, and his unconvincing bluster would be off-putting if it weren't heartbreaking. Mr Phoenix appears to be playing an actorly game of daring the audience to dislike Leonard, playing Loneard's faults up front but always saving them, not with a scamp's charming grin but with passing clouds of mature comprehension, from which Leonard would not run away if he were not afraid of being buried alive.
In the end, Two Lovers is not about the outcome. True to form, it is about weakness — about coming to terms with weakness, for a change, instead of denying it. What happens is as inevitable as gravity. All the gratitude in the world — and she is not ungrateful for Leonard's help — will never make Michelle choose a dry cleaner over a lawyer. Leonard's fantasy of rescuing Michelle overlooks the obvious: he needs rescuing himself. What Two Lovers is about is Leonard's decision to let himself be rescued, by Sandra and her father; to hope that rescue will not be live burial by another name. It is not a happy ending, but it is an affirmative one that stands for the proposition that life is worth the trouble. The ensuing chapters of Leonard's life are unlikely to be untroubled. Thanks to James Gray's warmly-made film, however, it is reassuring to expect that he will live to tell them. (12 March 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press