Leonard is never diagnosed. We hear whispers from his parents. The odd word catching our ear: “Institution,” “bipolar.” But director James Gray bravely avoids explaining away his character’s internal struggles with pop psychology. For, the truth about mental illness, is that it becomes such an inextricable part of a person that a simple one-word diagnosis is often not enough to explain it. Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) has a good family, a decent social life, and a stable support system. He also decides to throw himself off a bridge in the film’s opening. People are complicated.
Gray is a director who often tackles cliché- sounding premises with such realism and humanity that its well-trodden territory suddenly feels fresh and immediate.
“The Immigrant” dissects American capitalism by creating a twisted relationship between its two major characters in what otherwise might have been a standard “American Dream” story. “The Lost City of Z” subverts the “white man goes mad in the jungle” narrative by instead having its protagonist slowly succumb to an obsessive quest for transcendence. “Two Lovers” takes on the oldest narrative premise of all: the love triangle. And yet, he manages to create characters that are so richly layered that you hardly notice the inherent artifice in such a premise.
In a career of incredible performances, Leonard stands as one of Phoenix’s best. Hinting at the unhinged physicality that he will later fully display in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” Phoenix tampers his signature unpredictability with a light touch and a sense of humor. He is able to subvert the narrative that mentally ill people are unsociable animals. His Leonard can be funny, charming, and goofy, not to mention a pretty good dancer. Phoenix refuses to play a “type,” but rather makes a character where mental health is simply a facet of himself, rather than all he is. Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw are similarly excellent as the titular two lovers. Paltrow subverts the “manic pixie dream girl” type by playing up the character’s apparent mental health issues. Her character isn’t some ideal that all women must reach for. Instead, she is a deeply flawed, even manipulative person. Shaw may have little screen time, but she imbues her role with such warmth that you can see why anyone would fall for her.
The existence of these “two lovers”- – two opposing forces pulling Leonard apart, serves as an effective metaphor for his own mental state. Leonard constantly finds himself oscillating between two vastly different modes: joyous and charming, or depressive and downright suicidal. If anything, it’s James Gray’s justification for creating the cliche’d “love triangle” premise. Instead of using it as the vehicle for the film’s dramatics, he instead uses it almost as window dressing. The focus is on the characters, not the premise. The premise simply adds thematic value.
With the upcoming release of “Ad Astra,” Gray has suddenly become a director to watch. I say it’s about time. Once only a festival darling, the director has flourished into a someone that will make an indelible impact on the cinematic landscape. His career started with the operatic “Little Odessa,” continues with the humanistic “Two Lovers,” and now it finds itself launching into space. All that being said, I think that “Two Lovers” will always stand as his most personal film. It marks the first film of his that displays a legitimate maturation in his style. In the past, his films seemed torn between intimate drama and genre thrills. I wonder if Gray sees a little bit of himself in Leonard.