Review: Two Lovers

An involving, ultimately touching romantic drama about a young man's struggle deciding between the two women in his life, "Two Lovers" reps a welcome change of pace for director James Gray from his run of crime mellers. Well acted by Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw, this very New York tale is old-fashioned in good ways that have to do with solid storytelling, craftsmanship and emotional acuity. Developing an audience will be another matter altogether; its central romantic dynamic would be entirely accessible to a mass audience, but pic's smallish nature and lack of real B.O. names suggest that interest will need to be built among discerning viewers via fest exposure and critical support, leading into gradual platform release by a dedicated distrib.

Gray developed a following, among some Yank cinephiles but far more widely in France, with three Gotham-set crime dramas, "Little Odessa," "The Yards" and last year's Cannes entry "We Own the Night." But opinions of those films have little bearing on what one's reaction to "Two Lovers" will be, as its intent, emotional temperature and accomplishment are quite different.

Inspired in part by Dostoevsky's story "White Nights," Gray and co-scripter Richard Menello have cooked up a contemporary love story that could have taken place anytime; except for the characters' addiction to cellphones and one use of a computer, the film almost has a '50s feel, especially in the interchange among friends and neighbors and in how two of the characters interrelate between windows across a courtyard.

At the film's heart is the eternal and vexing conflict a man can feel over pursuing a bewitching, sexually fascinating neurotic and choosing a good, attractive but less mysterious woman who's the more sensible partner. Not that the man is such a winner himself. Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix) has recently moved back into his parents' modestly comfortable Brighton Beach apartment after a cancelled engagement to a woman he loved. On meds for a bipolar condition, Leonard is a sometimes diffident guy who dabbles in photography but works at his dad's dry cleaning establishment, a business that soon may be merged into a small chain owned by the Cohen family.

It's through these family negotiations that Leonard meets Sandra Cohen (Shaw), an open, seemingly uncomplicated young lady who makes no secret of her interest in Leonard, an interest he soon takes advantage of. Perhaps the only little smirk the film provokes is having two such gorgeous women as Sandra and new neighbor Michelle (Paltrow) virtually fall into moody Leonard's lap almost simultaneously.

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