Leonard (Phoenix) is a sensitive and depressed man in his 30s who moves back into his parents’ apartment after being involved in a terrible romantic breakup. He works for his father’s cleaners business but his true interest is photography. After he is set up with the daughter (Vinessa Shaw) of his parents’ best friends he suddenly becomes infatuated with the gorgeous but troubled Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) he spots across from his bedroom window. The problem: She’s having an affair with a married man. What to do?
If Phoenix is really serious about quitting acting and becoming a hip-hop musician he could not have picked a better role to go out with. His is a meticulously nuanced portrayal of a broken spirit and confused romantic stuck at the crossroads between settling for the mundane and predictable life his parents want for him or following his heart into a dangerous and volatile future. As the girl of his dreams Paltrow is simply terrific a complicated woman in love with a married man and using Leonard as her desperately needed anchor to reality. Their scenes together crackle both on edge but neither on the same wavelength. As the nice neighborhood girl who loves movies like The Sound of Music and has casual dates with Leonard Shaw (3:10 to Yuma) has a poignant Hilary Swank quality that proves quite appealing though maybe a bit too safe. Writer/director James Gray has done mostly moody crime films like We Own the Night and The Yards but here he proves he has a firm handle on a the kind of small intimate character-driven drama we saw in classic films like The Apartment and Love With the Proper Stranger. Gray perfectly captures a slice of life that makes Two Lovers not just a rare movie for adults that’s well worth watching but one to savor. One bit of warning: This is not a film for short attention spans as Gray lets the scenes play out in natural time and doesn’t go for easy resolution. And that’s a good thing.