A few weeks ago, Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Gladiator, We Own the Night, and more) made a shocking announcement: he was retiring from acting. The announcement and his subsequent scruffy-beard appearance and general inarticulateness on the David Letterman show lead many in show business to assume the respected actor had become addled. Alas, it seems Phoenix remains clear-headed, if extremely aggressive, about his decision–he has indeed quit being an actor. If this remains true, then the last film of the 35-year-old actor is Two Lovers.
Two Lovers is Phoenix’s third film with director James Gray. Their partnership was most commercially successful with We Own the Night (2007), an intriguing tale of two brothers on the opposite sides of the law. Two Lovers evidences Gray’s proven ability to put a microscope on the complexities of family relationships and to draw subtle, elegant performances from a small, perfectly matched cast. Sadly, it also shows what a loss Phoenix’ departure from acting will be, for his sympathetic, pitch-perfect performance is unforgettable.
Leonard Kraditor (Joaquim Phoenix) is the 30-some bachelor son, only child, of caring Jewish parents. After he and his beloved fiancé discovered they both carried the gene for the dreaded Tay Sachs disease (meaning any children of theirs would live a short, painful life), her parents broke off the engagement and took her away so he could never find her. That loss, combined with an already precarious tendency toward bipolar disorder, precipitated suicide attempts. Rootless, Leonard has returned to live in his boyhood room in his parents’ book-filled Brooklyn apartment. He spends his days helping out in his father’s dry cleaning business and trying to act like he’s perfectly normal. He dreams of a life beyond his parents’ narrow expectations, of being a professional photographer, a future of adventures, passion and unpredictability, with many, many dragons waiting to be slain.
Enter Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow, Iron Man) who lives in the apartment across the courtyard. A chic blonde, vivacious, mysterious, shallow, non-intellectual, totally exciting. A shiksa, and worse than that, she’s having an affair with her married boss. She’s bad but beautiful news and Leonard is drawn to her like a moth to a flame.
Meanwhile, his parents introduce him to Sarah Cohen (Vinessa Shaw, 3:10 to Yuma). She’s a perfectly nice, attractive young Jewish woman who wants to marry Leonard, and not just because her father wants her to do it in hopes of combining his dry cleaning business with Leonard’s father’s business. She truly loves Leonard and attracted by his dark broodiness, she wants to take care of him.
Unlike so many other contemporary films that ridicule contemporary Jews, Two Lovers portrays Jewish families as most of them surely must be, where parents love their children, and children want to make their parents happy. Especially mesmerizing is Isabella Rosselini (The Accidental Husband) who plays Leonard’s mother with an exquisite balance of unconditional love and the acceptance that her son must be his own person. This compassionate look at Jewish family life is one of the most beautiful aspects of this reverential, appealing film. These are very nice people, true to themselves and trying to do the best in life they possibly can.
Leonard knows that his attraction to Michelle puts every dream of his parents for him at risk, but he sees in her all the different dreams of his own. What happens to everyone in Two Lovers is a tale that anyone of us could tell a variation of, for who hasn’t at least once been in love with the wrong person?
All the performances are extraordinary but in the end, Two Lovers belongs primarily to Joaquin Phoenix. He’s sensitive and fun, sexy and kind, vulnerable and brave. When the movie is over, all you want to do is cry out, “Joaquin, change your mind. Come back to acting.”