- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

Countless romantic comedies have been built on the premise of one man torn between two women. Writer-director James Gray makes this time-honored story new partly by simply switching genres.

“Two Lovers” has all the elements of that type of romcom — two gorgeous women for the guy to choose from, a memorable supporting cast to keep that guy on his toes and some looming event to give urgency to his choice. Rather than play these things for laughs, though, Mr. Gray wrings out the maximum amount of drama but never overplays his hand.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, not your traditional romantic hero. As the movie starts, he halfheartedly attempts suicide. He’s had some sort of difficulty that has led him to move back in with his parents (Moni Moshonov and the always-superb Isabella Rossellini), who own the dry-cleaning shop in which he works.

His father plans to merge his business with that owned by the Cohens (Bob Ari and Julie Budd). These two sets of nice Jewish parents would be so pleased if there also were a merger of a personal sort. Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw) might be the perfect girl to bring home, but she’s more vital and sexy than such a description would suggest.

In fact, Leonard and Sandra seem to be hitting it off until Leonard bumps into new neighbor Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow). The impossibly beautiful Michelle is everything Sandra isn’t — blond, sophisticated and needy rather than nurturing. Leonard, of course, falls for her immediately. She looks to him not for romance, but comfort as she endlessly analyzes her relationship with a married lawyer (Elias Koteas) and wonders if he’ll ever leave his wife for her. Leonard, meanwhile, wonders if she’ll ever leave the lawyer for him — all while he’s romancing Sandra and resisting the older adults’ attempts to give him some ambition.

The story, while involving, isn’t the big attraction here, though. It’s the people and the pace. “Two Lovers,” more than anything else, is a study of a very confused character and the women who could either help him or harm him. With the stability and caring Sandra offers also would come the loss of a dream, and with the dream Michelle offers also would come the loss of stability and maybe even sanity. This choice isn’t merely between a brunette and a blonde.

Leonard’s dilemma and eventual choice — and with it the story of his past and future — unfold at a very nice pace. Our interest is kept not with action or thrills, as in Mr. Gray’s previous films, such as “We Own the Night,” but with performances.

Mr. Phoenix gives us such a moving portrait of alienation and longing that we’re completely invested in whatever decision he finally makes. It’s hard to believe a young man this talented has declared an intention to retire from Hollywood.

Everything about this quietly beautiful film is understated — the performances, the score and, most of all, the inner turmoil that easily can mean life or death for the most sensitive among us.

★★★

TITLE: “Two Lovers”

RATING: R (Language, some sexuality and brief drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by James Gray. Written by Mr. Gray and Ric Menello.

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

WEB SITE: twoloversmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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