Joaquin In the Sand

sarristwo lover 1h Joaquin In the SandTwo Lovers
Running time 110 minutes
Written by James Gray and Richard Menello
Directed by James Gray
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix

James Gray’s Two Lovers, from a screenplay by Mr. Gray and Richard Menello, manages to immerse itself in the community of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, to such an extent that the 30-something male protagonist’s eventual decision to abandon it, along with all his ties to his Jewish family, seems foredoomed from the outset. From this point, I must warn the reader that I intend to give away the plot in order to explain what I find peculiar about it.

The film begins with a failed suicide attempt through drowning in Jamaica Bay in mid-winter by a young man whom we later come to know as Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix). We later learn also that Leonard was reacting self-destructively to a wrenching breakup with a longtime girlfriend. He retreats for emotional shelter to his parents’ apartment. His father, Reuben Kraditor (Moni Moshonov), operates a cleaning establishment at which Leonard works sporadically in a menial position. His watchful mother, Ruth Kraditor (Isabella Rossellini), worries about Leonard’s seeming aimlessness in life, and his frequent habit of locking himself in his room.

Shortly thereafter, Leonard is formally introduced to Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), the young and pretty daughter of Michael Cohen (Bob Ari), the wealthy cleaning magnate who is set to purchase Reuben’s business for a hefty sum. Sandra immediately comes on to Leonard, and they end up sleeping together; their parents become aware of the relationship and thoroughly approve. Sandra’s father takes Leonard aside and offers him a good future in his firm.

One day he encounters an attractive young woman his age standing out in the hall to escape her grandfather’s loud ranting on the telephone. As it turns out, her name is Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), and she has been having an affair with a married man for a long time. We later learn that she has been hooked on drugs for a long time also. Leonard realizes immediately that she is as mixed up in her life as he is in his, and this forms a bond between them.

While still seeing Sandra, Leonard grows closer to the frequently ailing Michelle, and decides that he wants to accompany her to San Francisco to start a new life. But on the day of departure, she tells him that she is returning to her married lover. Crestfallen, Leonard briefly considers another suicide attempt, but then decides to return to Sandra and their two families for what he considers to be a conformist future.

Mr. Gray’s narrative was inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story “White Nights,” and by Luchino Visconti’s 1957 film, adapted from the Dostoyevsky story, except that the story and the film dealt with one young girl’s quandary in choosing between two male lovers. In any event, Leonard’s initial and instinctive choice of Michelle over Sandra seems perverse in the extreme unless the point is that Leonard is entranced by the idea of sharing neuroses with Michelle. The acting is all first-rate nonetheless, and Mr. Gray and his cinematographer, Joaquín Baca-Asay, have captured their locale in its most somber stages, as if to emphasize the essential sadness of the two love stories, and the chill they induce in the viewer.

Mr. Gray made his directorial debut at the age of 25 with Little Odessa (1994), a critically acclaimed crime drama about a hit man confronted by his younger brother upon returning to his hometown of Brighton Beach. That film starred Tim Roth, Edward Furlong, Maximilian Schell and Vanessa Redgrave.

In 2000, Mr. Gray wrote and directed his second film for Miramax, The Yards, starring Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, James Caan and Joaquin Phoenix. We Own the Night (2007) paired writer Gray with Mr. Wahlberg and Mr. Phoenix for the second time. The film is an emotional crime drama about a man who has chosen to hide his past only to discover that he has to confront an inevitable future. Eva Mendes and Robert Duvall also star.

Mr. Gray was born in New York City, grew up in Queens and attended the University of Southern California School of Cinema—Television. So who says you can’t go home again?

asarris@observer.com