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Cross the line
Meta-swan song sees Phoenix descending

Two Lovers

Rated:R
Studio:Magnolia Pictures
Director:James Gray
Cast:Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas
Genre:Drama
Our Rating:

Critics aren’t supposed to let an artist’s behavior influence their assessment of his work. Yet that ideal is almost unattainable when somebody like Joaquin Phoenix uses the occasion of his latest film’s release to: a) publicly swear off acting; b) launch a rap “career”; and c) go on Letterman looking and acting like Andy Kaufman’s answer to Rick Rubin’s answer to whatever currently needs answering. Blurring barriers even further, Phoenix not only raps in Two Lovers but break-dances as well. Thankfully, both dalliances are brief, and are given an onscreen diagnosis we’ve yet to receive in real life: mental illness.

Phoenix’s Leonard Kraditor is a verified, fully medicated manic depressive who lives in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in a peeling apartment with his crumbling parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov). Fresh from his latest half-hearted suicide attempt, the unkempt and under-motivated Leonard nonetheless finds himself having to choose between two paramours. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is the gentle and ethereal daughter of his father’s would-be business partner; Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a bodacious legal assistant who has been installed in Leonard’s building by her inattentive married lover, who also happens to be her boss.

Sandra (unaccountably) sees Leonard as marriage material, while to Michelle, he’s both protector and pet. Yet each gazes on him adoringly, as if a harelipped man-child with a chemical imbalance and no apparent ability to support himself were a grade-A find.

The story that ensues sees Leonard enduring the thorny (and none too sympathetic) problem of keeping the hot and doting Sandra at arm’s length while making a play for the hot and damaged Michelle. The movie wants us to dwell on the fragility of feelings and the tragedy of bad choices; instead, it had me momentarily fooled that I could be a real player were I to move back in with my folks and cultivate my emotional difficulties.

What the film has going for it is a genuine sense of locale. The Kraditors’ place is a believably dingy and dispiriting environment that’s decorated with family photos too big for the wall on which they’re hung. (Too much life; not enough living.) Yet director and co-writer James Gray downplays the mental hierarchies that the residents of such a gulag instinctually erect. His Brighton Beach is a happily egalitarian realm where a trophy mistress like Michelle will warmly welcome along an obvious loser like Leonard on her trips to broach the velvet ropes of Manhattan nightspots. (It doesn’t help that Gray, who has worked with Phoenix three times now, apparently still lacks the authority on a set to correct some really amateurish line readings, or to get a star like Paltrow to talk to her co-stars instead of at them.) In terms of art direction, the movie certainly knows its neighborhood, and even its specific block – it just has no idea what planet it’s on.

Maybe it’s the one where Phoenix is a rap star.

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