Movie News & Reviews

Familiar vs. forbidden in 'Lovers'

OK, so Joaquin Phoenix has been acting very strange lately, talking about retiring from acting to become a rapper. (If the YouTube clips of his recent live performances are any indication, I'd rather see a Young Black Teenagers reunion than his album hitting stores.) He appeared on David Letterman looking like a drunk, wayward rabbi. And everybody's been eating it up.

Whether or not this is all a Andy Kaufman-esque hoax he's putting on for the cameras (brother-in-law Casey Affleck has been filming him for a "documentary" they both have in the works), let's not forget that he's out there, acting like a dang fool, because his alleged final film "Two Lovers" is out in theaters.

And those who are getting a kick out of the nutty shtick he's pulling in public will certainly enjoy Phoenix in "Two Lovers."

A clean-shaven Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a dude who's more fidgety and awkward than Phoenix is these days. (I wonder whether this is where he got the inspiration.) He's been living with his dry-cleaning parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach after a breakup with his fiance left him in a suicidal haze. His parents try to push him back into the dating game by introducing him to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the kind-hearted daughter of a potential business partner.

But before he can consider courting Sandra, Leonard meets his upstairs neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). Michelle is, shall we say, a handful: the blonde lass has a drug habit, an unstable dad and a relationship with a married man (Elias Koteas). Of course, a girl who's this pretty -- and this pretty messed-up -- is a prime catch for Leonard, who quietly desires this woman even when the feeling isn't mutual.

I was entertained by "Lovers" for several reasons. For starters, it's a story many guys may know all too well. I mean, who among us have eschewed going out with the sweet, safe girl to pursue the crazy, unattainable beauty -- and ended up regretting it mightily. Heck, I know a couple of friends who are going through this drama right now. (One of those friends has seen this movie and told me this was one painful flick to sit through.)

Although director James Gray and screenwriter Ric Menello loosely based the movie on Dostoevsky's "White Nights," (and not the Mary Wells song the title is lifted from), the movie feels like a moodier, dead-serious take on "The Heartbreak Kid" (the 1972, cringe-tastic, Charles Grodin-Elaine May original, not the 2007 Ben Stiller-Farrelly brothers remake that I refuse to see). Just like in that movie, Phoenix is a good Jewish boy looking to break away from tradition, responsibility and the nice Jewess and head for the unpredictable, shiksa-goddess fantasy.

While the story's as old as time itself, Gray (along with cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay) takes great pride in making his story as visually sharp as possible, with dry, dreamlike hues and fluid camera work. It makes you wish all love-triangle movies were this pleasing to the eyes.

Now, some may find it implausible that Phoenix would lust after the lean-and-lanky Paltrow instead of the sexy, curvier Shaw. (Just the sight of Shaw's bra-covered back may send men into carnal convulsions.) But Paltrow does make a convincing turn as a flaky temptress, just as Shaw hits all the right, vulnerable notes as Leonard's suitable alternative.

Phoenix instills his character with enough puppy-dog pitiableness to make you almost understand why two outta-his-league women would want him in their lives.

Perhaps that's how we should perceive this ludicrous behavior Phoenix has been exhibiting lately. Instead of being amused by his shenanigans, we should feel sorry for the guy. I know that's what I've been doing.