The in-joke right now (or perhaps the played-out one) is the strange new incarnation that is Joaquin Phoenix. Announcing that he is quitting acting to become a hip hop superstar, and his subsequent bizarro appearance on Letterman, may be part publicity stunt, part legitimate personality quirk but after watching his alleged final film, James Gray's Two Lovers, one may also add crime against art to that descriptive. Though Gray's film may suffer at times from a certain lack of energy, thanks to its lead, it never becomes boring. Phoenix, who has always been one of the bravest of actors, freak or not, here gives what may be both his most subtle work and his best performance yet.
Part sad clown, part romantic dreamer, part forgotten man, Phoenix portrays the suicidal Leonard, broken engagement and heartbroken, and once again, at thirty-ish, living at home in his parent's Brighton Beach flat. His depression is finally lifted by the two lovers of the title. The first is the sweet, stable Sandra, played by the deceptively sirenesque Vinessa Shaw, daughter of the man who wants to buy the family dry cleaning business, and the second is the sexy shiksa girl next door, Michelle, played by the pretty but blandish Gwyneth Paltrow, who, like a flame to Leonard's moth is just as fucked-up as he is and thus the apparent soulmate to Leonard's fragile tottering psyche. Hinting at allusions to that great tongue-in-cheek Gilligan's Island philosophical parable "Ginger or Mary Ann?" (I have always been a Mary Ann boy myself and thus am rooting for Sandra here) Gray's film, just like Phoenix's Leonard, switches back and forth in allegiance. The last twenty minutes or so, which I will not give away here, manages to circumvent any real answer to this quandary while, with stupendous audacity, blowing the entire question to pieces. The final scene, reeks of both lonely abandon and some sort of strangely appropriate saving grace.
Setting Gray's intimate yet sensibly so direction aside, it is Phoenix who makes this film soar the grey Brooklyn skies that it does soar. Where Gray gives us an overall moody and confined, almost claustrophobic, atmosphere - an atmosphere that is completely and sensibly the right one to give - Phoenix gives the film the inner life that is its heartbeat. Whereas Gray is the mind, Phoenix and his puckishly fucked-up Leonard, is the heart. But alas, this is meant to be the actor's final heartbeat, and though I do not believe that for a second, there is a part of me that already misses the crazy fucked-up actor. As my wife turned to me and said after watching the film, "Joaquin Phoenix quits acting but we can't get Jason Biggs or Dane Cook to ever go away?" Oh Joaquin, say it ain't so. [03/12/09]