Two Lovers begins with Joaquin Phoenix, the troubled son of two Brighton Beach dry cleaners, jumping off a pier into freezing water. He resurfaces after a change of heart, but as the scars on his wrists attest, this isn’t the first time he’s thought about killing himself. And as the rest of the film makes clear, he has a habit of getting in over his head.
Still recovering from a scotched engagement, Phoenix lives at home with parents Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov in a cramped, homey apartment. He mopes, works at the family business, and hones his photography skills. As Moshonov finalizes a business merger with another Jewish family, Phoenix overcomes his almost palpable shyness to start a flirtation with the other family’s daughter (Vinessa Shaw). But whatever his feelings for Shaw, he has no trouble befriending Gwyneth Paltrow, a bewitching, vulnerable new neighbor. He’ll soon learn that her apartment comes courtesy of her married lover (Elias Koteas), and that she has a habit of playing to Phoenix’s smitten availability. He’ll also discover that he can peer up into Paltrow’s apartment and imagine himself by her side. It’s a different sort of deep water, but just as dangerous.
Taking a break from crime dramas, writer-director James Gray (The Yards, We Own The Night) offers a story richer in details than broad strokes. Shaw offers love, support, and security, she comes from the same culture, and she quickly wins the approval of Phoenix’s family. Paltrow plays an unstable blonde shiksa (who favors ponytails, no less) seemingly there just to lead Phoenix astray. But the particulars of the story, Gray’s moody compositions and feel for the neighborhood, and especially the performances rescue Two Lovers from the obvious. Phoenix’s charm and vulnerability makes it easy to believe that two women would take an interest in him, even with seemingly nothing going for him. His scenes with both have the intensity of relationships whose initial warmth might flicker away or flame out. The characters are all a little too old for this sort of drama, and they know it, but that makes Two Lovers as much about last chances as new loves. Even when the characters talk around what they feel, the performances make it clear they know they’ll be living with their current choices for the rest of their lives, right up to a final scene that could be graceful or tragic, and defies viewers to see it only one way.