Who knew Joaquin Phoenix was cinematic catnip for the ladies?
“Two Lovers,” the drama which might mark the end of Phoenix’s acting career should his rap music take off, casts the mercurial Oscar nominee as a bipolar manchild caught between two women.
Phoenix brings many gifts to the big screen, but unquenchable sex appeal isn’t one of them. Especially when’s he’s playing the kind of bedraggled figure he inhabits here.
The film, available June 30 on DVD, casts Phoenix as Leonard, a sad sack who tries to commit suicide as the story opens.
He survives and returns home where his mother and father fret over his every move. Leonard has issues, from a soul-crushing career at his father’s dry cleaner business to remorse over the end of his last relationship.
Enter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of another dry cleaning operator. She’s instantly smitten with Leonard, and audiences will struggle to see why. He’s barely articulate, lives in a pigsty of a room and can’t seem to rally the effort to keep his head held aloft.
What’s not to love?
But Leonard also meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a troubled soul trying to decide if she should stay with her boyfriend (Elias Koteas) even though he’s married.
Leonard pines for the damaged Michelle, but life would be so much easier if he fell in love with Sandra.
The inexplicable nature of the women’s attraction to Leonard is the movie’s 800-pound gorilla. Every other element more or less falls beautifully in place. The actors deliver bruised, emotionally connected performances, and the story zigs just when you expect it will zag.
“Two Lovers” strength lies in its unpredictability – and the bold choice to let Leonard behave in a way that rarely comforts the audience. He’s wounded, to be sure, but he’s also criminally selfish. Phoenix refuses to dial back those elements, which gives the movie a coiled intensity.
Yet he’s still not right for the part. Another actor, one with a reservoir of charisma and smoldering appeal, could have made Leonard’s “Two Lovers” make a whole lot more sense.
(Photo: Joaquin Phoenix says his performance in “Two Lovers” marks the end of his acting career.)