Martin Scorsese won’t need to put his imprimatur on James Gray’s Two Lovers—the French film press has already taken care of that. Populated by cops and petty criminals, typically set in and around Brighton Beach’s immigrant community, Gray’s downbeat family sagas have inspired Gallic critics to anoint him “le Scorsese russe.”
Two Lovers, which had an ecstatic world premiere in Cannes last May, is something of a departure for the 39-year-old director—a switch from the posturing gangsta grit of Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night to wacky romantic drama. Still constant, however, are the suffocating family atmosphere and tone-deaf repartee. Gray’s frequent leading man, Joaquin Phoenix, here plays Leonard Kraditor, a bipolar would-be photographer, released from the bin back to his family’s Brighton Beach nest. A wiseacre like Adam Sandler might have brought an edgy element of delusional grandiosity to this tragic asshole, who, devastated by a broken engagement and forever poised on the brink of hurling himself into Sheepshead Bay, is persecuted by a clinically paranoid mother (Isabella Rossellini, playing “Jewish” with all the shrillness she can muster). Phoenix is more the depressed Hamlet, torn between the comely, unaccountably understanding JAP, Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), who his parents are promoting—her father owns a chain of dry cleaners and is prepared to take Leonard into the business—and the crazy shiksa, Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), conveniently stashed next door by a married lover (Elias Koteas).
The performers are attractive if unconvincing. The auteur’s worldview is unappealing yet authentically his. The movie’s most heartfelt aspects are a drearily excessive bar mitzvah, the disgusting close-ups of mom’s home cooking, and the Kraditor apartment’s laboriously ethnographic mise-en-scène. “Ee-ew, what’s that thing?” Michelle asks, pointing to the family dreidel. Sandra is also clueless, albeit in a nice way. Her favorite movie, she tells Leonard, is The Sound of Music. Before you can say, “Doe, a deer,” he manages to engage this goody-goody in sex made all the more incestuous by the presence of their parents kibitzing around the dinner table a few yards away. Love with Michelle is a lot wilder, shifting from late-December rooftop canoodling to total insanity once Leonard goes off his meds. Touching in its absurdity, the movie is what the French, if they didn’t love Gray so much, might term agréablement ridicule.