In February 2009, Joaquin Phoenix appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman to promote a small film called Two Lovers. A chilly and melancholic story of unrequited love, the film is directed by James Gray and stars Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, a depressed photographer living with his parents in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. His mother and father, played by Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini, try to set him up with a local girl, a fellow Jew, but he’s more interested in new neighbour Michelle (Gwenyth Paltrow), a glamorous blonde who works at a law firm in Manhattan.
“You don’t see movies like this much any more, and I was so gratified to see it,” said Letterman, praising Phoenix’s performance. This could have been the film’s legacy – a rare grown-up drama with real stakes, real stars and zero franchise potential. Unfortunately, Phoenix’s Late Show appearance attracted more attention than the film. Hiding behind dark sunglasses and an unruly beard, the actor met Letterman’s questions with awkward, monosyllabic responses, telling the talk show host that he was retiring from acting to focus on his “hip hop” career. The clip went viral. A year later, Phoenix’s supposed meltdown was revealed to be a performance; part of the Casey Affleck-directed mockumentary I’m Still Here. The excruciating interview has remained a key moment in Phoenix’s career, and Two Lovers reduced to a footnote.
Loosely inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1848 short story “White Nights”, the film opens with Leonard plummeting headfirst into the sea at Sheepshead Bay. Four months later he’s still recovering from the suicide attempt, gratefully receiving bed and board at his parents’ house but less taken with their attempts to intervene in his love life. “You have a lot of DVDs,” remarks romantic prospect and dry cleaners’ daughter Sarah (Vinessa Shaw). Her favourite is The Sound of Music. “It’s underrated,” he replies as a courtesy. Leonard is drawn in by Sarah’s tenderness, but, as in most love triangles, the girl next door is given short shrift.
It’s Paltrow’s Hitchockian blonde Michelle, glimpsed across the courtyard through a window, who catches Leonard’s eye. The new friends take the train into Manhattan together. “I could tell you were a creative,” she says flirtatiously. But Michelle is emotionally unavailable: she’s an addict, and mistress to Ronald (Elias Koteas), a wealthy married lawyer who works with her in the city.
Leonard’s infatuation with Michelle is really an infatuation with her gilded universe. As they arrive in Manhattan she pulls her hair out of its low ponytail and shakes it loose before stepping into a shiny black car. Her usual lover wines and dines her, even takes her to the opera. At a posh restaurant, Leonard, keen to keep up, sips a Brandy Alexander cocktail through its stirrer, mistaking it for a straw. Back at home, he unwraps a compilation CD – Opera’s Greatest Moments. This longing for Manhattan is contrasted with the Russian-Jewish community in which Leonard lives. Gray, who is Ukrainian-Jewish himself and grew up in Queens, knows this world. From the blue fan napkins at beachside café Volna, where Leonard and Sarah meet for an unsatisfying date, to the fake chandeliers in a nightclub where Leonard does the worm to Moby’s “I Love to Move in Here”, Gray evokes a vivid sense of time and place. His first three feature films, Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night (which also stars Phoenix) are also predominantly set in the unglamorous blue collar suburbs of south Brooklyn.
In an interview with the New Yorker, Gray describes Two Lovers as being “about uncertainty and being embarrassed of your background”. It’s worth noting that Leonard’s photographs don’t contain people. His existing class anxieties are exacerbated by the presence of Michelle, who seems to slip comfortably between worlds but whose chaotic life and myopia don’t exactly offer him a path out of his own. Phoenix frequently plays outsiders; he’s impressionable in The Master, pathetic in Her, a cartoon loser in Joker. What’s striking about this particular entry in the Phoenix-as-isolated-eccentric canon is its flavour of defeated animal loneliness. The hugeness of Leonard’s suffering becomes claustrophobic given the smallness of his self-contained world; fitting, perhaps, for a film based on Dostoevsky.
It’s a tragedy of its own that, at the time of its release, the film – quiet and old-fashioned in its ambitions – was eclipsed by Phoenix’s outsized star persona. Towards its end, Leonard tosses an engagement ring into the ocean. Phoenix’s portrayal of deep sadness sent me back to the Letterman interview, looking for a trace of it beneath the glasses, and the beard, and the brattish insouciance. Alas, I found nothing.
“Two Lovers” is available to rent on YouTube, Amazon Video and Google Play
This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy