Three's a crowd

The Baltimore Sun

The showbiz dictum that all publicity is good publicity has rarely been tested as dramatically as with the opening of Two Lovers. After filming it, the star, Joaquin Phoenix, decided to quit acting and become a hip-hop artist. While promoting it, he flaked out with David Letterman. Gwyneth Paltrow, his co-star, has recently been covered as a budding Oprah for the Internet age. It's enough to make you forget that they're two of our most gifted, sensitive actors.

Two Lovers makes you remember. Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a fellow who's always in transition. A dashed engagement wounded him and clouded his vision of the man he'd become in maturity. In this film, without the dark glasses and beard that made him look freakish with Letterman, Phoenix's eyes suggest a tumult of feeling. He expresses character subtly with his body, without flailing around.

It's tempting to read his farewell to acting into this portrait of a man who's fragile and fed up, just as it was tempting to read Heath Ledger's demise into his portrayal of the death-loving Joker. But when Leonard does a rap based on his name and pops some dance moves with Paltrow, it's in character. Phoenix suggests how Leonard felt when he was an exuberant guy.

Paltrow proves superb as an unsettled and unsettling woman who doesn't overvalue her beauty and bemoans her shaky character. When she tells Leonard, at first, that he doesn't love her, what she means is that he can't love her. It's part protest, part prayer - she doesn't want to complicate his life. Paltrow's underlying sanity as a performer allows her to go all the way with a woman who is a mystery even to herself.

Other guys might kill for the romantic problem Leonard develops in Two Lovers, but Leonard only thinks of killing himself. The movie starts with a halfhearted suicide attempt. Soon after, we learn that earlier Leonard had slashed his wrists over a broken engagement. He's been living in his parents' Brighton Beach, N.Y., apartment for four months, and working in his dad's dry cleaning store.

Suddenly, in the course of a few days, he connects to two women simultaneously. Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw) is, in family terms, a perfect match: She's the daughter of another dry cleaner who wants to buy the Kraditors' shop. Paltrow's character, Michelle Rausch, is the mistress of Ronald Blatt (Elias Koteas), a high-powered lawyer with a wife and son who has set Michelle up in Leonard's building. Michelle is a kept woman. Sandra is still kept by her nuclear family.

With a haunted look and a halting cast to his speech, Leonard is rebounding from the love he lost with his fiancee. But Two Lovers is unusual because it dramatizes how love and affection rebound off each other even when relationships are just being born. Sandra is so open about her desire for him that Leonard can be confident with her; Michelle is so chaotic that she can't tell when she's enticing him or hurting him. In a way, Sandra is her own worst enemy: the confidence Leonard gains with her emboldens him with Michelle.

With fully realized performances from all three leads, Two Lovers puts you on a teeter-totter that doesn't stop until the final scene. Shaw is heartbreakingly sweet and pretty as Sandra. This basically conventional woman enjoys her family, but desires a marriage that doesn't merely replicate her parents'. Leonard, an aspiring photographer, loves movies. Sandra says she loves movies, too. But when he asks her for her favorite, it's the corniest one imaginable: The Sound of Music. And she likes it partly because watching it was always a family occasion. Michelle may not even have a favorite film, but she feels more like a muse. She even likes opera.

The movie is supremely nonjudgmental and balanced. Leonard hides his growing attachment to Michelle from Sandra, but you can't condemn him. He really does care for Sandra. And she sees that Leonard is broken; she wants to take care of him. Unfortunately for Sandra, Leonard sees that Michelle is broken and wants to take care of her.

Writer-director James Gray's previous films, including Little Odessa (1994) and The Yards (2000), felt forced and fell flat. But he's a true portrait artist in Two Lovers. Moni Moshonov, as Leonard's father, Reuben, has a wonderful, weathered vitality; a mixture of surprise, curiosity and mistrust sweeps across his face and into his voice when he sees Michelle in his apartment. He's touching in his homey weariness when he falls asleep in front of PBS.

Isabella Rossellini is persuasive as Ruth Kraditor, Leonard's mother, who is more attuned to her son's happiness than anyone else. She's touching when she peeks under a door to make sure Leonard isn't hurting himself. Two Lovers would be unbearably melancholy were it not also warm, ruefully funny and generous in its appreciation of Brighton Beach's close Slavic-Jewish family life. It's a triangle movie that encompasses three moods and varieties of love (and how they all bleed into each other): domestic, romantic, erotic.

Two Lovers

(Magnolia Pictures) Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw. Directed by James Gray. Rated R for language, sexuality and brief drug use. Time 110 minutes.

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