There's a kind of achy beauty to Two Lovers, a romantic drama about a man who's drawn to two very different women, as it explores the complexities of attraction. Is it better to be with someone who has similar flaws because she "gets" you and is just as messed up as you are? Or is it a recipe for disaster to put together two people who are messed up in similar ways? Why do we become obsessed? Is the kind of love that's intoxicating and devastating better or worse than a calm love full of respect and companionship?
The story belongs fully to Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), as we see everything from his point of view. Nothing happens unless Leonard sees it (and we see it with him). It's an intimate thing, this perspective. Not only do we root for Leonard, we are living with his decisions alongside him, right from the very first scene — in which Leonard attempts suicide. He jumps into water but eventually surfaces and walks away, back to his parents' apartment in Brighton Beach where we learn that this isn't Leonard's first attempt, and that he is bipolar. The narrative swiftly moves forward as we're introduced to the two women who become the objects of Leonard's affection: Kindhearted family friend Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) and the beautifully damaged Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). Sandra makes her feelings clear, and Leonard could have a stable relationship with her — along with great joy and support from both families. But Leonard is irresistibly drawn to Michelle, in all her flighty dysfunction, because she's disturbed, confused, and vulnerable — just like Leonard. So, which one should he be with? For some of my thoughts on this story, read more.
Basically, Leonard's just a guy who falls for a woman that he perceives to be just like him. She's insecure and self-obsessed — and Leonard loves that with her he's maybe not the most messed-up person in the room. He likes the idea of being two crazy peas in an unstable pod. But then there's Sandra, pretty and loyal and generous. Sandra even says out loud that she wants to take care of Leonard, but these don’t seem to be the right words for him to hear. With Sandra he can have a nice home and family, close to his parents and the family business — he'll be taken care of in every way. But with Michelle he would get to be impulsive and carefree and best of all he'd get to be near her, this unpredictable woman. The thing is, hers are the very qualities that could send him over the edge during a downturn.
The humble, cozy setting of Leonard's parents' apartment in the old Brighton Beach community gives a meaty, slice-of-life feel to it all. His parents are caring and protective but they also have their own lives and a nice circle of friends. They're happy, and they only want what's best for their son. Perhaps because of the feeling of community and tradition within this setting, Two Lovers feels very old-fashioned, like an age-old tale of love and confusion. It's really not a new story but something about it still feels so authentically modern-day. The end result is a dramatic snapshot that's timeless and yet distinctly belongs to our generation.
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures