After all that has happened recently, it is difficult not to write a review about a Joachim Phoenix movie without addressing his seemingly insane behaviour. Most actors manage to distance their personal affairs from their careers, and largely their work contributions can be judged entirely separately. Of course there are reservations about the wacky money-based Scientologist practices of the likes of Cruise, John Travolta and - allegedly - Will Smith, but that still (for the most part) does not stop me enjoying their movies and their performances. Likewise the fashionable 'adopt a foreign baby' habit of many celebrity couples is kept somewhat distanced from the popular films they still churn out, but what happens when the line is crossed?
Cruise is finally back on track with Paramount, looking at a fourth Mission Impossible instalment (which I personally eagerly anticipate), having recovered somewhat from his sofa-jumping antics in spite of the fact that he and his wife Katie Holmes still have regular lie-detector sessions as part of their 'faith'. And the allegation that Will Smith is attempting to get Scientology taught in religious studies at school? Despite some vague denials, he has still admitted to putting $20,000 into Scientology's study program. It all seems a little dodgy and I cannot say that it does not disturb me somewhat.
But what of Phoenix, a rather strange Hollywood entity, who has forged through a mixed bag career to give us some pretty decent performances of late? Can we really distinguish his acting talent from his ability to convincingly portray a Howard Hughes-eques madman in real life? Even if it is just a big publicity stunt, this is not necessarily the publicity that any acclaimed actor would really want. His final film, Two Lovers, disappeared from theatres without even a whimper, in the shadow of his talkshow antics and public declaration that he was going to stop acting and become a rap star. Is this really the last we will see from him? I doubt it, but in the meantime let's take a look at his supposed final performance.
Leonard has issues. After circumstances forced him to split with his fiancée, he tries feebly to commit suicide by jumping off a pier. It is not the first time he has tried either, the scars on his wrists betray the side-effects of his bi-polar disorder, and the consequences of avoiding his medicine for too long. Still living with his parents, despite being well into his thirties, Leonard's life changes when two women walk right into it: Sandra, the daughter of some of his parents' friends, and Michelle, the girl next door.
Sandra is everything perfect in a wife and potential mother of your children, kind, thoughtful, loving, loyal. She's sweet and innocent to boot, from a good family, and very interested in Leonard. Michelle, on the other hand, does not know what she wants. Trapped in a torturous relationship with a married man she ostensibly befriends Leonard through a chance meeting, and overtly wants to be 'just his friend'. She invites him out, confides in him and, pretty soon, starts talking to him about the problems she is having in her relationship. And despite having just begun a very promising relationship with Sandra, he finds himself drawn to and perhaps even falling in love with the damaged Michelle.
But how will he choose between the two? Can you really choose between the woman who loves you but who you don't fully love back, and the woman who you love but who doesn't love you back? And is it even his choice to make?
Director James Gray has worked with Phoenix twice before on two of his best movies - both underrated - The Yards and, most recently, We Own the Night. The first took an honest and intriguing look at mob affiliations on a nuclear family, the second looked at the effects of mob affiliations on a cop family. Both were very atmospheric, dramatic endeavours, and the latter I regarded quite highly when reviewed on Blu-ray. Two Lovers carries with it the same close-knit familial structure, intense observation of human nature and relationships between both family members and other loved ones, and has Gray's trademark methodical pacing and often bleak, sun-less setting. Stylistically, the pacing works surprisingly well, and for a movie totally devoid of any overt action, or even massively dramatic scenarios, the tension is maintained through a simple but effective ongoing concept: what will happen next for these three individuals?
On the other hand, Gray's tendency to film pseudo-night shots, or dark scenes steeped in blue and grey hues, whilst perfect for We Own the Night, seems totally incongruous with the material here. Too stylish, and too odd, frankly. Sure, the material is occasionally dark, the drama itself a poignant observation of human interaction, of the not necessarily straightforward path of love, the issues at times quite serious, but the outdoor scenes -which almost look as if they were shot on green-screen - look totally out of place.
The film itself suffers as a result, but it was not without its faults anyway. The story itself, whilst quite captivating for its runtime, feels a little far-fetched. It is basically the kind of arc typical of characters from The OC or One Tree Hill or, on this side of the ocean, the now-dire Hollyoaks. Even if you ignore the fact that you do not want to watch a movie with a basic soap storyline, the very story itself only really works with the kind of teen/twenty-something characters you might get in the aforementioned TV shows. It makes no sense with late thirty-somethings, they just come across a little too old to be behaving like this.
Logically, Gray has tried to rationalise it all, giving Leonard's character the background of mental illness to excuse the fact that he still lives in a room within his parents' apartment. He pitches Sandra as the good little innocent stay-at-home daughter, and tries to make Michelle's character fractured and damaged, to excuse her wild behaviour and whimsical nature. But it still feels like these are older actors trying to play younger characters, and it does not work.
Irrespective of his strange public antics, Joachim Phoenix can clearly act. His irritating cameos in films like Gladiator and U-Turn did not make him particularly endearing at first, but Buffalo Soldiers, The Village, Walk the Line and then We Own the Night all show his full talents at their best. Two Lovers gives him a typically troubled character to play, and he does so adeptly, but his character is not particularly likeable and - again - this is mostly down to the age. Behaving like a childish, immature teen, he may have medical issues to justify it but that does not make him any more likeable.
And I never thought that I would see the day when Gwyneth Paltrow managed to not look good. She has always done 'looking good' fairly effortlessly (and Iron Man proved she still can) - and she is quite an engaging actress - but here as the confused and high maintenance lawyer Michelle, she layers on the makeup, and also behaves like a teenager, and it is just not very attractive. In the scene where she is in the car heading to the club she is like a 37 year old trying to dress and look like a teenager. Not to mention act like one. Vinessa Shaw's Sandra is more likeable but totally underdeveloped. You may vaguely recognise her from the ugly but effective The Hills Have Eyes remake or the unexceptional 3:10 to Yuma remake. Here she certainly manages to convince as the sweet, good little daughter, but with nothing more to her character and not quite enough screen-time to engage, she is left as a bit of a third wheel in this drama.
All this criticism makes it sound like the film is not enjoyable or engaging in the least. That is not true, it keeps you involved using a derivative, purely relationship-based story - an accomplishment in itself - it has some good acting talent in it, playing interesting characters that are only made less likeable by the fact that the age appears to be all wrong. I quite enjoyed The O.C. and still watch One Tree Hill occasionally, so whilst the storyline seems inappropriate for this particular film it is no more or less captivating than a three month story-arc on your standard teen angst TV show. Two Lovers is perfectly enjoyable for its duration, occasionally tense despite a lack of action and certainly not particularly objectionable, even if it is unlikely to garner a repeat viewing. Still, I do hope it isn't Joachim Phoenix's last film.
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