Two Lovers (2008) is a surprisingly good, low-key indie type romantic drama directed by James Gray. Set in contemporary Brooklyn, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Leonard, the sensitive and somewhat unstable young man who finds himself in the seemingly enviable position of having to choose between two very attractive women, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Two Lovers does a good job of portraying a particular ethnic milieu, that of traditional Jewish business owners -immigrants or children of immigrants- in Brooklyn. The way his parents treat the thirty-ish Leonard might seem a bit of a stereotype -the overprotective Jewish parents. It is a little amusing to see him trying to sneak out of the house before his mother (played by Isabella Rosellini) can interrogate him about his plans. But it is made clear early on that Leonard is disturbed -the opening scene shows him in a half-hearted suicide attempt- which makes his parents’ smothering behavior a little more understandable.
The two women represent opposing directions Leonard can take. Sandra is the daughter of his father’s business partner, and a marriage between the two is practically being arranged, Old World style. Michelle, meanwhile, is a Manhattan girl, albeit one with problems of her own, including a tendency to pop pills. Michelle is also manipulative, stringing Leonard along while she maintains an affair with her married boss.
Everything about Two Lovers is nearly perfect, in a way that it’s easy to overlook because of the ordinariness of the circumstances. All of the characters, as well as the setting feel real, and the story, while simple, has a real poignancy. I can’t say I really liked the ending, but I can’t elaborate on that without giving too much away. Besides, even if I would have preferred a different outcome (not so much in Leonard ending up with one woman over the other, but his apparent overall life direction at the end), it was probably realistic and in that sense in keeping with the film’s authentic spirit.