Bravely wearing his heart on his sleeve, James Gray directs the tender and terrific Two Lovers as an antidote to the virus of hip. Forget the setting in modern Brooklyn. You watch Joaquin Phoenix yearn for Gwyneth Paltrow, the blond goddess-next-door, and it could be Marlon Brando putting his first tentative moves on Eva Marie Saint in 1954’s On the Waterfront. This is delicate business, the kind of lost art that usually gets crushed under the jackboots of the trendy.
Phoenix, in one of his best performances (let’s hope his decision to quit acting is an empty threat), finds the bruised romantic in Leonard Kraditor. The bipolar man-child has retreated to the Brighton Beach apartment of his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) and a nowhere job. He sparks when Sandra (the lovely Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a family friend, shows an interest. But when his eyes lock on Michelle (Paltrow), he’s a goner. Never mind that Michelle is being screwed and supported by a married jerk (Elias Koteas) with kids. The film’s secrets unfold slowly, allowing Phoenix and Paltrow — a luminous fusion of grace and grit — to build a relationship in full. The script, by Gray and Richard Menello, is inspired by Dostoevsky’s White Nights. But Gray, moving far from the crime scenes of Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night, offers his own acute vision of love as a battle with loneliness. It’ll get to you.