Two Lovers has no superficial similarity to The Yards, another film from
the same director, James Gray. The Yards is about hard-nosed gangsters and
political corruption. Two Lovers is about a troubled Jewish boy who is being
pursued by a nice Jewish girl, while he in turn is chasing after an
unattainable shiksa with long limbs, long blond hair, and a presence that
reeks of snooty prep schools and pampered elegance. (Goodbye Again, Columbus?)
And yet the films are linked by many common characteristics:
On a superficial level, both films are about New York as much as they are
about the people who live there. Their New York is not the romanticized
Manhattan of Woody Allen movies, which is populated by over-educated people
who are isolated from reality and have too much free time, but is the real
everyday New Yawk in the outer boroughs. Both Two Lovers and The Yards are
about the people one might really encounter on the streets of Brooklyn and the
Bronx, people often profane and angry and even despairing, but usually
energetic and assertive, because the lethargic and timid can't survive there.
Both films are dark. I don't mean thematically dark, although there is some
of that as well, but just literally dark. People go out during the night and
live in apartments that need to triple the illumination levels. They eat in
restaurants lit by candles. Little happens during the day, and when it
does, the weather seems cold and windy and generally forbidding. I came of age
in one of the outer boroughs, and I can tell you that this ambiance is not
that accurate in a literal sense, but there were many times when the darkness
of the James Gray New York was metaphorically accurate, so I can see what he
is driving at. He's representing a certain New York angst that always exists,
even when the sun shines and the crowds are cheering.
The star of both films is Joaquin Phoenix, who has now made three films
with Gray. He seems to be the perfect leading man for James Gray films:
complicated, unsure of himself, troubled, awkward, uncomfortable in his own
skin. He has never really been a New Yorker, but he absolutely has the right
DNA for the roles he plays in these films. His mother was born in the Bronx to
Jewish parents who immigrated from Russia and Hungary. Although the three
performances in Gray's films are arguably his best and most genuine
characters, the American guilds and academies have never nominated him for any
awards for this body of work, in spite of the fact that he's been a magnet for
nominations for roles performed elsewhere. (Gladiator, Walk the Line, and
Both films are real. They are about real people doing things they way they
do them in real life. There is no contrivance to improve the story. When a
character is obviously in over his head, he's going to get hurt even when we
are rooting for him, because that's the way life works. Jessica Alba doesn't
suddenly decide to marry one of us schmucks, no matter what we do. It'll never
happen unless we get ungodly rich, and we'll never get ungodly rich. We'll
stay single for a while, go into dad's business, maybe marry the girl next
door because we're lonely. Then we'll lose our hair, and screw up every time
we try to take a short cut. We are just like the characters in these movies.
Is that a good thing? I am ambivalent about that. I prefer a little more
entertainment and a touch of escapism in my movies, and I like some humor. For
example, Woody Allen's sense of humor makes his pseudo-intellectual dithering
tolerable for me, and Charlie Kaufman's surreal imagination allows me to give
him more slack when one of his characters slips into a poetic soliloquy. But
Gray rarely adds any escapist flourishes to his films, although We Own the
Night, another one of his pictures, is more of a Hollywood-style film and
merited a 2300-theater opening. Much worse than the slow pacing and lack of
action is the fact that Gray seems to have absolutely no sense of humor. He
not only seems to be a serious man, but he also seems to take himself
seriously as well, in the manner of Bergman. In other words, I would not go to
any of his films on my Friday movie nights if there were other choices
available. If I want to see unvarnished reality I can sit on a park bench for
free. On the other hand, I admire what Gray has accomplished, even if it is
not to my taste. Those who see cinema as an art form consistently appreciate
what James Gray does in his movies. He goes after the truth and he tries to
sift out the bullshit. His characters are all multi-dimensional, and his
dilemmas are presented with such painstaking nuance that we don't know what we
would do if we were in the shoes of the characters. In that respect, his films
seem similar to those of the esteemed Polish auteur Kieslowski. Those sorts of
values are highly prized by critics and intellectuals, especially European
ones. Gray has never been nominated for any significant awards here in the
States, but the French love his movies, as they love Bergman's, Kieslowski's
and Woody's. At Cannes, Gray has been nominated for the Golden Palm three
times. In Paris, he has been nominated for two Cesars for "best foreign film."
This particular movie was nominated for both of those awards.
American critics loved it almost as much as the French intellectuals. It
received 85% positive reviews and drew high praise from the most respected
reviewers. Metacritic calculates that the average review was 75/100 on their
scale. To put that into perspective, Eastwood's Grand Torino scored only 72 on
the same scale, Revolutionary Road scored only 69, and Oscar "best picture"
nominee Benjamin Button scored only 70. Almost all of the experts agreed that
Two Lovers is an excellent film.
You never heard of it, right?
Don't be embarrassed. Although it is in North American theaters as I write
this, nobody has heard of it except those who wear turtlenecks and berets.
That pretty much means it is only familiar to Frenchmen, film critics, NYU
undergrads, and maybe mimes. In the USA it opened in 7 theaters and grossed
$100,000 on its opening weekend. It may have a slightly better future. If you
do the math, you'll see that the average per theater was quite impressive on
that opening weekend, even if the absolute dollars seemed small, so the film
was expanded to 66 theaters this weekend. OK, that doesn't exactly make it The
Dark Knight, but at least the theatrical release has now been upgraded from "a
perfunctory face-saving" to "a mini-arthouse run."
Gwyneth Paltrow, as the
unattainable rich shiksa (the Ali MacGraw role), shows one breast to Phoenix
as they talk on the phone while visible to one another.