Two Lovers has no superficial similarity to The Yards, another film
from the same director, James Gray. The Yards is about hard-nosed
gangsters and political corruption. Two Lovers is about a troubled Jewish
boy who is being pursued by a nice Jewish girl, while he in turn is
chasing after an unattainable shiksa with long limbs, long blond hair, and
a presence that reeks of snooty prep schools and pampered elegance.
(Goodbye Again, Columbus?)
And yet the films are linked by many common characteristics:
* On a superficial level, both films are about New York as much as they
are about the people who live there. Their New York is not the
romanticized Manhattan of Woody Allen movies, which is populated by
over-educated people who are isolated from reality and have too much free
time, but is the real everyday New Yawk in the outer boroughs. Both Two
Lovers and The Yards are about the people one might really encounter on
the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx, people often profane and angry and
even despairing, but usually energetic and assertive, because the
lethargic and timid can't survive there.
* Both films are dark. I don't mean thematically dark, although there
is some of that as well, but just literally dark. People go out during the
night and live in apartments that need to triple the illumination levels.
They eat in restaurants lit by candles. Little happens during the day,
and when it does, the weather seems cold and windy and generally
forbidding. I came of age in one of the outer boroughs, and I can tell you
that this ambiance is not that accurate in a literal sense, but there were
many times when the darkness of the James Gray New York was metaphorically
accurate, so I can see what he is driving at. He's representing a certain
New York angst that always exists, even when the sun shines and the crowds
* The star of both films is Joaquin Phoenix, who has now made three
films with Gray. He seems to be the perfect leading man for James Gray
films: complicated, unsure of himself, troubled, awkward, uncomfortable in
his own skin. He has never really been a New Yorker, but he absolutely has
the right DNA for the roles he plays in these films. His mother was born
in the Bronx to Jewish parents who immigrated from Russia and Hungary.
Although the three performances in Gray's films are arguably his best and
most genuine characters, the American guilds and academies have never
nominated him for any awards for this body of work, in spite of the fact
that he's been a magnet for nominations for roles performed elsewhere.
(Gladiator, Walk the Line, and Hotel Rwanda.)
* Both films are real. They are about real people doing things they way
they do them in real life. There is no contrivance to improve the story.
When a character is obviously in over his head, he's going to get hurt
even when we are rooting for him, because that's the way life works.
Jessica Alba doesn't suddenly decide to marry one of us schmucks, no
matter what we do. It'll never happen unless we get ungodly rich, and
we'll never get ungodly rich. We'll stay single for a while, go into dad's
business, maybe marry the girl next door because we're lonely. Then we'll
lose our hair, and screw up every time we try to take a short cut. We are
just like the characters in these movies.
Is reality a good thing? I am ambivalent about that. I prefer a little
more entertainment and a touch of escapism in my movies, and I like some
humor. For example, Woody Allen's sense of humor makes his
pseudo-intellectual dithering tolerable for me, and Charlie Kaufman's
surreal imagination allows me to give him more slack when one of his
characters slips into a poetic soliloquy. But Gray rarely adds any
escapist flourishes to his films, although We Own the Night, another one
of his pictures, is more of a Hollywood-style film and merited a
2300-theater opening. Much worse than the slow pacing and lack of action
is the fact that Gray seems to have absolutely no sense of humor. He not
only seems to be a serious man, but he also seems to take himself
seriously as well, in the manner of Bergman. In other words, I would not
go to any of his films on my Friday movie nights if there were other
choices available. If I want to see unvarnished reality I can sit on a
park bench for free. On the other hand, I admire what Gray has
accomplished, even if it is not to my taste. Those who see cinema as an
art form consistently appreciate what James Gray does in his movies. He
goes after the truth and he tries to sift out the bullshit. His characters
are all multi-dimensional, and his dilemmas are presented with such
painstaking nuance that we don't know what we would do if we were in the
shoes of the characters. In that respect, his films seem similar to those
of the esteemed Polish auteur Kieslowski. Those sorts of values are highly
prized by critics and intellectuals, especially European ones. Gray has
never been nominated for any significant awards here in the States, but
the French love his movies, as they love Bergman's, Kieslowski's and
Woody's. At Cannes, Gray has been nominated for the Golden Palm three
times. In Paris, he has been nominated for two Cesars for "best foreign
film." This particular movie was nominated for both of those awards.
American critics loved it almost as much as the French intellectuals.
Almost all of the experts agreed that Two Lovers is an excellent film.
You never heard of it, right?
Don't be embarrassed. Although it is in North American theaters as I
write this, nobody has heard of it except those who wear turtlenecks and
berets. That pretty much means it is only familiar to Frenchmen, film
critics, NYU undergrads, and maybe mimes.