Something Old, Something New

'Two Lovers' is a great New York movie that feels both classic and contemporary

Director James Gray must have watched every old movie that took place in New York, because he swipes scenes from about half of them in his strange new drama, Two Lovers. There's a little West Side Story, some Rear Window, a dash of Marty and maybe a touch of Sweet Smell of Success.

Which is not a bad thing; Gray knows his movies and knows what to take from them. What's interesting about Two Lovers is that, while the composition in the cinematography draws from these movies, the lighting does not. While the plot structure is reminiscent of midcentury urban romances, the dialogue and acting are decidedly contemporary. As if to further emphasize the difference, Gray uses a great score of American movie jazz, centrally featuring the Henry Mancini number "Lujon," but then includes a moment of Moby in a club scene.

All of that would be gimmickry, albeit the kind of gimmickry that film fans appreciate, if the movie didn't also stand on its own. And it does. The story is one that's been done many times: A man is torn between two lovers. He's probably feeling like a fool. He knows that loving both of them would be a violation of not merely some, but actually all of the rules.

The man is Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), who starts the film off by attempting suicide, diving into the waters off Coney Island. Sadly, like everything else in his life, the suicide is a failure, and he must return to his parents' apartment, where he's been living since his fiancée left him.

His parents own a small dry-cleaning firm and are negotiating a merger with a larger firm owned by the amiable Mr. Cohen (Bob Ari). Leonard's parents are also trying to negotiate a merger between Leonard and Mr. Cohen's lovely daughter, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw).

Strangely, the path of true love does not run straight, or gay, but sort of Mormon fundamentalist, as Leonard finds a lighter-haired and more shiksa-ish woman to also love. While Sandra shares Leonard's Jewish upbringing and New York background, the other woman, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), shares Leonard's mental illness and poor impulse control. To that end, she's dating a married man (Elias Koteas) and using way too much hair dye and narcotics.

So, of course, Leonard loves her more than the sweet, down-to-earth, caring Sandra. It's a feature of this sort of film that the hero loves the wrong woman more. Whatever. Everything about the plot of this movie is predictable, but that's not an issue: The plot is meant to be predictable. It's almost a plot about the plot, because instead of the normal characters you find in these roles, you have truly weird individuals who have such richness that you could just watch them sit around and think about their shoes, and you'd still be entertained.

Phoenix is particularly entertaining. He doesn't aim at naturalism, but rather a sort of surreal and over-the-top evocation of depression and drift. Basically, he plays the same role he's been playing in his recent public appearances; only here, it seems like he means it.

Shaw is also great as Sandra, and Koteas, who's one of the best actors of his generation and would be a superstar if he only had more hair, does a fantastic, more heterosexual version of Burt Lancaster as Michelle's married lover.

Combined with the strange dialogue, Phoenix's ticky acting and the more realistic performances of those around him (except for Paltrow, who's sort of annoying, but I think that's necessary to the character and not simply a relic of the fact that Paltrow herself is an incredibly annoying person who thinks she can "nourish" your "inner aspect" by advising you to buy an $1,100 watch and a $45 pair of socks on her Web site), the whole thing becomes strangely engrossing. With the jazz instruments swirling over the lights of New York, this film transports the viewer into a particularly neurotic version of the glitzy dream of Manhattan that existed in the head of a Midwestern office worker in 1958.

And with Leonard stuck in his parents' apartment, and the stink of gloom and failure around him, there's a strong atmosphere of hope, because, really, no matter what happens to this guy, it's better than how he feels about himself.

So for fans of a certain era of filmmaking, of Mr. Phoenix as he was before his mad thirst for attention manifested itself in a beard, and for New York as she used to be before God sent His angry Disney hordes to zombify her downtown, this film is a treat.

Two Lovers is not showing in any theaters in the area.

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