What may (or may not) be Joaquin Phoenix’s last film performance may (or may not) be overshadowed by his recent public displays of high-weirdness. In James Gray’s Two Lovers the Hollywood legacy plays Leonard, a Brighton Beach boy who, after a sanitarium stint and a couple of suicide attempts, strikes up relationships with two women. There’s hot mess Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the vivacious mistress of the Rich White Guy played by Elias Koteas (“Zodiac”), and the frumpy but stable Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the parentally approved daughter of the partners of the family’s dry cleaning business. Guess which one he’s nutty for.
The film is uneven in tone, but thanks to two strong leads, is watchable. Phoenix, who teamed with Gray in 2007’s cop drama “We Own The Night,” is a textbook bipolar here, with exuberant highs and crippling lows ruling him. Part Rupert Pupkin, part Rain Man, Phoenix’s Leonard becomes less and less of a riddle as his predictably unpredictable actions define him more and more. Paltrow is quite electric here, with her Michelle stuck in many of the same ruts as Leonard and also succumbing to the wills of others in determining her fate (at one point, Shaw’s Sandra says to Leonard, “I want to take care of you,” but it’s Michelle we really want to protect). Leonard’s doting mother, Ruth, is memorable, too, if for no other reason than she is played by the forever lovely Isabella Rossellini.
Ultimately, “Two Lovers” is a decent enough parable of the fruitlessness of romantic love, even if we are somewhat preoccupied by Phoenix’s public Beardie the Weirdie persona to fully appreciate its nuances.•••
Robert Newton is a veteran film critic and the editor of NorthShoreMovies.net. He runs the Cape Ann Community Cinema in Gloucester, and makes novelty records (as “Fig”). He believes popcorn should be its own food group.