Joaquin Phoenix and Gweneth Paltrow play two lovers who each have their own two lovers between whom they have to choose. Both Oscar-nominated actors give captivating performances. Based on Dostoevsky's "White Nights," this story of two intersecting love triangles is exhilarating, refreshing, and charming.
Phoenix stars as Leonard, a man who is possibly suicidal. He apparently moved in with his parents four months ago for some unknown reason, though it might have something to do with the fact that he's on medication for being bipolar and that he's lost his fiancée.
Paltrow co-stars as Michelle, who isn't bipolar but who is the polar opposite of Sandra, the nice, Jewish girl whom Leonard's mom, played by Isabella Rossalini, wants as a daughter-in-law. Michelle is more adventurous and more impulsive. She goes dancing at night clubs. She likes brandy alexander and opera. She's not really a homebody.
To Leonard who is seemingly shy but who is actually quite personable, Michelle represents an escape, an escape from whatever depression or slump he was in. It's only with her that he's able to break out of his comfortable, discomfort zone and literally break-dance.
However, Sandra, played by Vinessa Shaw, is very warm and nurturing, and more self-confident. She's not a flake like Michelle. She accepts Leonard. She doesn't expect him to be anything he's not. She implicitly trusts him. She's more accessible, more adaptable, and more accommodating to him, whereas Michelle is the other way round.
But, what this movie presents as the struggle for Leonard is stability, as well as understanding that there is a certain level of maturity and responsibility that is key and important in romantic relationships, and perhaps even is vital. The character here toggles between having one lover who allows him to be not necessarily reckless but young, passionate, and more free, and having the other lover who demands him to be more sensible, more reliable, more restrained and almost more confined, but yet provides him with a love that's safe.
Leonard has to bandy a love with Michelle that's crazy and a love with Sandra that's more concrete. Both have their pros and cons, and to some the choice of which lover he would or should have might seem obvious, but filmmaker James Gray doesn't make it obvious. Gray's film is organic, and, with his actors, feels unexpected, yet so natural, so real, and so deeply honest. If I could describe Phoenix's performance as this torn and tortured thirty-something man, it would be that of being deeply honest.
Phoenix is authentic to a tee. His character seems so genuine, so identifiable that I couldn't help but empathize. I lost myself in his role, believing if I were in his shoes, in his situation, I would make the same moves, some of them awkward, but that's what makes this movie so charming. Phoenix here is so soulful and heart-rending, but in his eyes you see that he is a man so in love.
And, if nothing else, this is a story of that man trying to decide if that love is the kind of love he wants and what he's willing to do to hold onto it. He's a man who you come to see is desperate.
It also raises an interesting question. As an adult, there comes a time to choose between what you want and what you need. The two women here seem to represent either or. Leonard loves them both, but if he doesn't get the one he wants, which is a possibility because the one he wants is involved with another herself, can he be satisfied with the other, which is what he needs? Or, is it a question of just being satisfied and not wanting more?
Basically, he's a man juggling two women with sweaty palms, knowing he can't keep it going forever. One will slip from grasp. Each has equal weight, but one will be dropped, and, as the movie progresses, you feel the rush of air, as the balls go up and down, uncertain of which will be cupped in hand or which one will be smacked hard to floor. It's a great ride.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for language and some sexuality
Running Time: 1 hr. and 50 mins.
*NOTE TO READERS: This movie was distributed by Magnolia Pictures, an independent company so it won't be playing widely like X-Men Origins: Wolverine but it's a film worth seeking out.
Magnolia Pictures is also owned by controversial millionaire and Dallas Mavericks-owner Mark Cuban who I have to say could have his life story easily played by Joaquin Phoenix who bears more than a passing resemblance. Anyway, I highly recommend seeing this movie. It's by far one of 2009's best.
Currently, this film is playing in Rehoboth Beach at the Movies at Midway. It will play from May 1 to May 14. For more information, please visit: http://www.twoloversmovie.com/ and http://www.rehobothfilm.com/arthousetheater.html