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November 21, 2008

My SDFF - Two Lovers

two lovers 1.jpg

James Gray - 2008
Magnolia Films 35mm film

One of the things I like about James Gray's films are his interiors of the homes of his characters. Everything looks used, lived in. The sets look like the homes of my relatives or friends of my parents, with the artwork, photos and books. Even though we never see the kitchen, I feel a certainty of finding a couple of cans of borscht and the ingredients for matzo ball soup at the ready, like in my grandparents' house in Detroit.

Anyone who thinks that Gray is shifting gears in Two Lovers because the film is not about gangsters has missed the point of Gray's films after the previous three films. Gray's films are first, and foremost, about families. In this case, the cause of fracture is psychological, rather than criminal, with Joaquin Phoenix's despair over the course of his life. As in Little Odessa the parents are Russian immigrants, but unlike the debut film, are relatively successful with their dry cleaning business, and provide a stable base for their emotionally unmoored son.

The title is deliberately misleading, as Phoenix shifts between the woman who wants to save him, Vinessa Shaw, and the woman he thinks he can save, Gwyneth Paltrow. Without belaboring the point, Two Lovers revisits the classic trope of the Jewish young man caught between the Jewish girl that his parents (as well as hers) wants to be with, and the dream shiksa who only seems available when her dream guy isn't around. Not much is provided in Paltrow's background, but it is suggested that she hasn't been in Brooklyn very long when she asks about Phoenix's family dredel.

Paltrow looks her prettiest when she is dancing with abandon in a nightclub with Phoenix. Shaw, who previously has not had as much opportunity to show her abilities, has the more difficult role of a woman who is less sure about her attractiveness. The plot is very loosely adapted from Dostoevsky's short story, "White Nights", and those familiar with either that story or the any previous film adaptations, most famously by Visconti and Bresson, will recognize certain elements.

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On a more personal note, screenplay co-writer, Richard Menello was a good friend back in my NYU days. Two Lovers is a more serious work than films that had him credited as Ric Menello. For those interested, I would recommend simultaneously dumb and funny Drop Dead Rock.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 21, 2008 12:26 AM


I'm really looking forward to this one. Gray is highly under appreciated as a director. To your point, I've always felt his films have the best 70's feel of any recent films- the way he uses light and shadow are amazing and I'll never forget the scene in "We Own the Night" where Phoenix descends into the drug house undercover. The texture of the walls, the deep greens and browns.. the images paint such a telling story.

Posted by: Joseph B. at November 21, 2008 07:10 PM