Friday, September 4, 2009

Joaquin Phoenix in "Two Lovers": A Masterful, Beautiful Performance

By Lars Trodson

Just when you think movie acting has gone all slick and slack on you, something comes along that gives you faith.

The actor is Joaquin Phoenix, and he apparently isn't acting any more. So maybe his performance in "Two Lovers" will stack up as one of the most poignant swan songs in movie history. Say it isn't so.

You need to pick up "Two Lovers", if you have not already, and simply enjoy the craft of a guy who is at the top of his game. Everyone else in it is great, too, including Vinessa Shaw, who seems both fragile and strong at the same time, and Gwyneth Paltrow, who seems fresh and unaffected here.

But it is Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, a mixed-up, depressed, quiet young man with an artistic bent who hits the right notes at the very beginning of this pitch-perfect film and never wavers.

It's a little film, produced by Marc Cuban's 2929 Productions, and I had never heard of it. It was released in 2008, and I wondered who had beat out Phoenix for an Oscar nomination. I googled who was nominated for Best Actor Oscars last year -- Richard Jenkins, Frank Langella, Brad Pitt, Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn -- and I hate to say it but the one we could have lost there was Pitt.

But that would have put the number of great actors in very small films at four, though -- and I think the Academy was taking some heat for ignoring "The Dark Knight" -- a real blockbuster. So, the thinking might have been that putting Phoenix into the lineup just would not have been good business. Or maybe no one even bothered to see the film.

It's nice to say that Phoenix turns in a performance that is artful. From the first haunting images of the film (photographed by Joaquin Baca-Asay) to the last shot of two awkward lovers hugging during a New Year's Eve party, Phoenix etches a portrait of a person you seem to understand by the end of the film.

You may think the title, "Two Lovers", is obvious, but Leonard literally has two lovers. This didn't seem to be out of sync with reality at all. Leonard is a depressive, he's suicidal -- (at the beginning of the movie he jumps into Sheepshead Bay and later says to his mom, "I fell into the bay."), and he's back sleeping in his old bedroom. But he's a charmer with killer good looks.

I've known people like this, and you probably have, too -- some guy down at the local bar who is a bit of a loser and stone cold addict, but both women and men like him -- no, love him! -- and his bad habits never really seem to catch up with him until the very end.

That's Leonard. He's a mess, but so are the people around him -- except his parents.

This is one of the rare films that takes the time to allow the lead characters have a relationship with their parents that isn't one based on destruction. Leonard lives in Brooklyn, and his parents (played by Isabella Rossellini, still stunning, and Moni Moshonov) are both European emigres who own a dry cleaning shop where Leonard is working part time.

The parents are about to sell their shop to the Cohens, who arrive at the Kraditors apartment to celebrate the merger. The atmosphere of the apartment is palpably New York outer-borough, beautifully Jewish, without any hint of caricature or stereotype -- the details of this life are lovingly displayed.

The Cohens bring their daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) along. Sandra had seen Leonard in the shop and wanted to meet him.

The Cohens also want Leonard to photograph their son's upcoming bar mitzvah in black and white. Sandra and Leonard click -- you like her immediately - but then crazy-ass Michelle comes into his life. Michelle is played by Paltrow.

I don't think Paltrow has ever looked more beautiful, but her character's got some problems. She leans on Leonard, who is a solid friend.

The beauty of Phoenix's performance is that he is put through a series of humiliating episodes, and painful encounters, and he never loses his dignity or sense of self. And he always has something wry -- but not writerly or over-poetic -- to say. (The script is by director James Gray and Ric Menello.)

We're not going to give away too many details. But rent "Two Lovers", and enjoy the performances, and particularly revel in the work of Joaquin Phoenix.

I was wondering why Phoenix gave up films, but maybe decided to go off and do his rap act after he realized that if he could turn in work this good and no one ending up giving a damn, then it would be better to quit.

But we give a damn, and maybe if you see the movie, you will, too. But give it a try.