Two Lovers


Two Lovers

Isabella Rossellini comforts Joaquin Phoenix.

(2008) Romantic Drama (Magnolia) Joaquin Phoenix, Gwynneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas, Moni Moshonov, Samantha Ivers. Directed by James Gray

It is difficult to really find the path that’s right for you in life. Early on, your parents may choose one for you and maybe it’s a good path, but right for them, not for you. And if you have a damaged soul, it can be particularly difficult to find any path at all.

Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix) is coming off of one of those romantic break-ups that sucks your soul right out of your body and sends it spinning into the ether. He is somewhat damaged goods to begin with, having issues with bipolar disorder (which to the film’s credit is treated matter-of-factly instead of as a dramatic device) and the break-up shakes him up badly.

He winds up moving back in with his parents in Brighton Beach. He also starts working for his dad (Moshonov) in the dry cleaning business delivering garments to his customers. His mom (Rossellini) wants him to marry a nice Jewish girl (instead of the shikseh who broke his heart) and sets him up with Sandra Cohen (Shaw), the daughter of another dry cleaner. Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match…

Sandra and Leonard seem to hit it off, but that’s before he meets Michelle (Paltrow), a neighbor who makes Leonard’s problems look positively non-existent.  She is volatile, capricious and prone to grand dramatic gestures and to top things off she’s seeing a married man (Koteas) with problems of his own. On the surface, they would seem to be bad news for one another – which is why they are so attracted to each other, of course.

Of course, Leonard’s mom is mortified; this can only end in disaster and emergency rooms and suicide attempts. Surprisingly, Sandra isn’t about to give up an essentially good man like Leonard without a fight – and Leonard isn’t willing to give up Michelle without one either. How can any man find happiness with two lovers?

The point is, they can’t. At some point you have to commit and that’s what Leonard, whose broken heart has yet to fully heal, has trouble with. It’s in many ways a very powerful look at a situation that we could potentially find ourselves in, particularly in a time where love can become as lethal as an Arizona whacko. Okay, maybe not that lethal.

This is a movie for smart people to a very large degree; there are few of the clichés that dumb down Hollywood romances so often these days and there seems to be at least an attempt to add some realism to the relationships between admittedly damaged people. While yes there’s an element of New York hip to the movie (which can be a deal killer for Big Apple haters), the filmmakers concentrate on the broken shards of Leonard and Michelle’s lives and how they are trying to reassemble something into a whole. There is no pat ending and no Romance 101 storyline. The relationships have ups and downs and Leonard winds up facing a real dilemma; both of these girls are “right” for him only in different ways, and each comes with her own drawbacks. Choosing one over the other is no easy matter and no matter how he chooses, someone’s going to get their heart broken, possibly Leonard himself as well.

The performances are suitably muted and layered with depths of pain and humanity which are gradually peeled away. This is particularly true of Phoenix and Paltrow; Shaw really doesn’t have as much to work with but she does a solid job as perhaps the only person here I’d want to spend more than an afternoon with.

The movie unfortunately garnered more press for Phoenix’ antics while promoting it; it is while doing press for this movie that he made his now-notorious announcement that he was retiring from acting to take up a hip-hop career which turned out to be an elaborate – and somewhat baffling – hoax, as well as his legendary appearance on the Letterman show that resulted in David Letterman’s now famous line “Thanks for joining us Joaquin. It’s too bad you couldn’t be here tonight.” To a degree, Phoenix wound up overshadowing the movie in terms of hype which I think wound up ultimately doing the film a disservice.

WHY RENT THIS: A well-acted, intelligent slice of life-type look at a young man who is kind of drifting through life and facing a tough decision.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The somewhat adrift central characters can be maddening. Those who don’t like New York-centric films might find reason to loathe this.

FAMILY VALUES: It has its fair share of vulgar language, a bit of sexuality (some of it fairly raw) and a little smidgeon of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is set in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn. Paltrow’s mother, actress Blythe Danner, starred in the 1986 movie Brighton Beach Memoirs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.3M on an unreported production budget; the film in all likelihood came close to breaking even or might have even made a little bit of cash.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Bigger Stronger Faster

The Great New Wonderful


The Great New Wonderful

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Edie Falco share a tense lunch.

(First Independent) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tony Shalhoub, Olympia Dukakis, Edie Falco, Judy Greer, Will Arnett, Jim Gaffigan, Naseerudin Shah, Stephen Colbert, Sharat Saxena, Tom McCarthy, Billy Donner. Directed by Danny Leiner

New York City is without a doubt one of the greatest cities in the world. It throbs with the vitality of its citizens, and as the song says, never sleeps. One day in 2001 would change the meaning of what it is to be a New Yorker forever.

A year after that day, the citizens of New York are getting on with their lives for the most part. Sandie (Gaffigan) is talking to a somewhat unorthodox psychiatrist (Shalhoub) about anger issues which Sandie doesn’t think he has. With each session, Sandie becomes more and more frustrated and his anger seems to be more directed at the doctor than culled from some internal reservoir.

David (McCarthy) and Allison (Greer) are the young parents of Beelzebub, otherwise known as Charlie (Donner). Their young son has been acting out and these actions have grown exponentially worse as time has gone by. They are beginning to realize that he is becoming beyond their ability to control and as a result, their marriage is suffering. The headmaster (Colbert) of the exclusive private school they have sent him to is expelling him for his behavior and they have no idea what to do with their child.

Emme (Gyllenhaal) is an up-and-coming pastry chef in New York’s cutthroat bakery market and looks to unseat Safarah Polsky (Falco) as the reigning queen of the scene. Her ambition is driving her to use means both fair and foul to reach her goals, and she is unknowing or uncaring of the toll it takes on those who work with her, live with her or purchase her products.

Judy (Dukakis) lives with her husband across the East River in Brighton Beach in the borough of Brooklyn. Each night she fixes him dinner, then after eating makes collages while he smokes out on the balcony. Her re-connection with an old friend will open new doors and awaken new feelings of sensuality in her.

Two Indian-born New York resident security guards – Avi (Shah) and Satish (Saxena) have been given the assignment of watching over a dignitary from their native land while he is in New York to make a speech at the United Nations. Avi is carefree, joyful and humorous; his buddy Satish is dour, grumpy and prone to outbursts of rage. It’s hard to believe these two are neighbors, let alone friends.

All five of these stories carry little in common other than that they are set in New York a year to the month of the World Trade Center attack, and that all ten of the main characters share an elevator near the end of the movie. It is up to us to thread these stories together and quite frankly, it’s a bit of a stretch.

What one notices most is the emotional disconnect prevalent in almost all of the stories. The characters have latched onto some sort of idea or emotion and are holding onto it with a death grip, to the exclusion of all else. The self-absorption needed for this kind of focus is staggering, and yet those familiar with the New York of Woody Allen or The New Yorker magazine will not find it particularly far-fetched.

There is a routine also in each one of the main character’s lives and that routine is either a source of comfort or a fiendish trap. Breaking out of that routine seems to be, at least I’m guessing here, what the filmmakers suggest is the key to finding happiness, solace, call it whatever you want.

This is a very impressive cast for a micro-budget indie drama and they live up to their reputations for the most part. The vignette with the least-known actors in it (at least to those not familiar with Indian cinema), the one regarding Avi and Satish, was my own personal favorite as I found Avi to be the least hung-up of the main characters here.

I admit to having a certain fascination with everyday life in the Big Apple. I fully realize I don’t have the equipment to live there myself – it takes a certain kind of person to handle the pace and the feeling of being alone in a crowd that goes hand-in-hand with the NYC lifestyle. Still, I admire those who have what it takes and certainly New York offers perhaps the most attractive and varied choices for those who live there. I’m not sure if The Great Big Wonderful offers me any further insight into the psyche of New York, nor how it was affected by 9-11, but it does offer a nice visit to that town; I’m just not sure I would want to live there.

WHY RENT THIS: A solid cast gives solid performances. Some of the vignettes are interesting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all of the vignettes hold my attention. The linking thread is tenuous at best; this is certainly much more of a New York story than anything else.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fairly significant amount of salty language in the movie as well as a small amount of sexuality. Much more suitable for a mature audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Leiner is best known for comedies like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Dude, Where’s My Car.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 12