James Gray’s fourth feature is called Two Lovers, but it actually features three: The film centers on a bipolar young man named Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) whose sudden, powerful attraction to a blonde party-girl neighbour (Gwyneth Paltrow) is complicated by his tentative affair with the meek daughter of family friends (Vinessa Shaw).
What makes Two Lovers so affecting is that it takes both relationships seriously: Gray’s willingness to put sticky, conflicted feelings onscreen — and then to work through them with a measure of compassion for all involved — makes him a rarity in an American cinematic landscape dominated by post-modern irony and rom-com glibness.
“One thing that was a big deal for me was hearing Duke Ellington talk about music,” says Gray over the phone from Los Angeles.
“He said that there were two kinds of music: The good kind and the other kind. I think that what he was talking about went beyond genre.
“It was about emotional commitment and being authentic to that emotion. That’s not the same thing as realism, but it is about a lack of distance.”
Two Lovers owes much of its sense of intimacy to its star. Instead of overplaying his character’s awkwardness, Phoenix digs deep to locate a wobbly sense of grace.
Phoenix also does a brief rap in Two Lovers, and while Gray has already discussed his star’s recent bizarre behavior, he doesn’t mind saying, once again, that he doesn’t get it.