Joaquin Phoenix has become something of an enigma. Following his renunciation of acting, along with the sparkly trappings of Hollywood for the more humble profession of lyrical wordsmith, his film fans and music critics are united in hoping he doesn’t give up the day job.
But judging from the current hobo look he sports, his aloof stare and incoherent mumblings (its rapping apparently), immortalised by his infamous appearance on David Letterman earlier this year, it looks as if Two Lovers may well be his swan song.
It’s quite fitting then that Phoenix plays Leonard, an awkward, socially inept 30-year-old loner; it’s almost as if he’s given up acting in his last film and is just playing his new-found self. Leonard is at a crossroads in his life, returning to his parent’s home in Brooklyn, New York, the amateur photographer wiles away his time helping the family dry-cleaning business while toying with reattempting suicide following a failed relationship.
Director James Gray shoots the film in blues and greys, the muted tones reflecting the cold harsh reality in which the characters live; there are no rose-tinted views of life in Leonard’s world. Mollycoddled by his overprotective mother, played superbly by Isabella Rossellini, and pressured by his father to take responsibility for his future, he’s introduced to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his father’s business partner. She typifies the wholesome, girl-next-door whom parents would love to have brought home to them, but despite her advances Leonard is distracted by the free-spirited and unstable Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who does actually happen to be the girl next door.
It’s clear that Michelle has a mesmeric hold on Leonard from the start, drawn in by her vulnerability and need to be saved from herself, she reflects him in many ways. But her fickle tendencies lead him reluctantly into the arms of Sandra. Both women are unaware of each other as the audience witness Leonard pulled between the passion and excitement of the former and the stability and safety of the latter. Gray explores complicated modern relationships through the complex characters, closing with a realistic, if somewhat wary end.
Despite plaudits for his performance, Phoenix is not the fine form he was as Jonny Cash in Walk the Line, or even in Gladiator. Rather, it is Paltrow and Rossellini who steal the show as lover and mother. Still, if his rapping is anything to go by in the film, his fans and music critics needn’t worry; it’s probably just a phase he’s going through.