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Two Lovers, the latest from writer-director James Gray, is both familiar and rare -- familiar because it evokes the film Marty (1955) and the novels of Philip Roth and rare because it's the sort of nuanced, realistic drama that, in our modern moviegoing age, is in danger of being squeezed off screens in the name of talking robots and slapstick.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Leonard Kraditor, a sad-sack young man living in Brighton Beach, New York, at his parents' house. He's being primed to take control of the family's dry-cleaning business, and he's been set up with local Jewish girl Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). But does Leonard really know what he wants? When blonde, beaming Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) moves into his building, he's drawn to her -- but is it because of who she is or who she isn't?
Gray and co-writer Ric Menello have updated a story by Dostoyevsky with contemporary twists: while the love triangle feels eternal, moments like when Phoenix feuds with a loud neighbor across the building's air shaft ("Is that you, Doug? There's a storm coming, buddy...") are totally modern.
The performances are all excellent: Phoenix's Leonard may struggle with depression, but you can also glimpse the smart, kind, charismatic man these two very different women fall for. Shaw's neither a doormat nor an angel, and Paltrow's more than just a glowing goy goddess. Isabella Rossellini plays a mother who just wants her son to be happy, whatever the cost.
It's a great cast working with a director who's boldly moving beyond the guns-and-grit of his earlier (excellent) films Little Odessa (1994) and We Own the Night (2007). As we head into a spring of superheroes, special effects, and toy tie-ins, Two Lovers might be one of your last best chances to see real human beings on the big screen as they try to wrap their heads and hearts around the hopes and hurts of real life.