‘Two Lovers’ weaves old tale of romantic longing

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The long-familiar tale of romantic longing and deceit is the center of “Two Lovers,” a melodrama about a Jewish man-child living in Brighton Beach. However, what elevates the film among others in its genre is strong acting that details the complexity of real human emotion.

The plot revolves around Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), whom we first meet as he makes a half-hearted suicide attempt. Leonard is a man in his 30s who speaks in little more than grunts. He lives in his parents’ apartment after being recently released from a hospital where he was treated for depression.

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Leonard’s observant parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Monoshov) are comfortable in their tight-knit, lower-middle class world. Their apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn is like something from another era — filled with antiques, treasured trappings of religious life and old pictures of family, including their rabbi forefathers. The Kraditors own their own business but it’s a dingy little dry cleaning shop, where Leonard works alongside his father.

Leonard’s parents clearly dote on their only child although they are puzzled by him. Still recovering from a romantic disappointment, Leonard seems to have few interests beyond a mild one in photography and no life plan beyond escaping his parents’ world.

The Kraditors are negotiating to sell their business to the Cohens, whose unmarried daughter is close to Leonard’s age. The parents arrange for the two to meet, clearly feeling like it would be an advantageous match for both families. Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw) is a pretty, pleasant, undemanding young woman who knows Leonard’s sad history and wants to see the best in him.

This budding match is quickly complicated by the appearance of a new tenant named Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). Leonard is immediately smitten with this blonde-haired, non-Jewish beauty, although he says nothing of his infatuation to his family or to Sandra. Eventually he learns that Michelle is being hidden away in the apartment by her married lover Ronald (Elias Kosteas), whose mother still lives nearby in “the old neighborhood.”

“Two Lovers” is a departure for director/co-writer James Gray, who usually works in gritty crime dramas such as Little Odessa. It also is far more successful than the director’s previous cop drama, We Own the Night, in which he also worked with Phoenix.

Much of the story of class and romance in “Two Lovers” seems taken from another era, packed with Jewish stereotypes. Leonard himself is a man with one foot still in emotional adolescence, with no real ambitions beyond escape. He swings between a large capacity for self-delusion and endless hope and self-absorbed opportunism. Fortunately, the film is often rescued from its melodramatic tendencies by strong acting on the part of Phoenix and Paltrow.

Phoenix turns in a disturbing performance as the man-child Leonard. Leonard is ever hopeful of his romantic chances with Michelle but seems to hedge his bets by keeping his feelings secret while carrying on a relationship with Sandra. Paltrow is very good, too, as the beauty Michelle, who is used to being able to lean on men and yet too wrapped up in her own romantic frustrations to notice Leonard’s longings.

Underlying themes about class and social climbing abound. Paltrow’s character has ambitions to be a trophy wife, just as Leonard has ambitions to escape to Michelle’s more glamorous world. Even Sandra has ambitions to cement a place at the center of two joined families.

The plot keeps you on edge with its ever-tilting alliances. “Two Lovers” takes us down a path of self-delusions, longings and “settling,” leading up to a chilling ending.

Men and women may see this film differently, which makes it ripe for discussion. Whether this melodrama is a romantic fantasy about the unreachable beauty or a tale of deception and betrayal depends on your perception. Either way, the theme of romantic desire versus comfort and security is as compelling as it is humanly real.

“Two Lovers”, which is rated R, is slated to open at Plaza Frontenac Cinema on Friday, February 27.