Sara Vilkomerson’s Guide To This Week’s Movies: Phoenix Rising, We Hope!

We’ve found ourselves spending an awful lot of time lately wondering just what the heck is happening with Joaquin Phoenix. Much has been made of the so-called retirement and maybe rap career and is-it-a-hoax-or-is-he-a-genius-or-has-he-just-lost-his-mind status these days. For the record, we’d like to note that we’re celebrating our 20-year anniversary of digging this weirdo, which started with the TBS favorite Parenthood (when he was still Leaf Phoenix). And hey, anyone else remember how awesome Inventing the Abbotts is? But anyway, our point is that it would be a shame to lose Phoenix to his demons or Casey Affleck or whatever, because he’s really very good, particularly in the new James Gray film, Two Lovers.

This is the third paring for Mr. Phoenix and Mr. Gray—they also did The Yards and We Own the Night (take that, Leo and Marty!)—and this is the best of the bunch. Mr. Phoenix plays Leonard, a troubled and moody sort who has moved back in with his parents. We quickly learn that nice Jewish boy Leonard has some problems (judging from his maybe suicide attempt in the opening scene), that he’s working at his father’s dry cleaning business, and—holy cow!—Isabella Rossellini plays his mom. There’s been a recent heartbreak, and while his parents hover over him, he meets two very different women. The first, shiksa goddess Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow)—a high-strung and mysterious party girl who lives in Leonard’s building thanks to her married boyfriend—and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the sweet-faced daughter of the businessman buying out Leonard’s family’s business, and the woman his parents would like to see him with.

It’s strange to see Ms. Paltrow play a slightly dizzy and self-destructive character. There’s a certain kind of poshness and intelligence about the actress that’s natural, but her casting as the blond unattainable beauty works; her long, flaxen tresses and sad eyes reminded us of Great Expectations (in a good way!). Her married boyfriend is played by the great character actor Elias Koteas, and since we’re going down memory lane, we’ll give a shout-out to his role in Some Kind of Wonderful, but we’re not really sure if he was perfectly suited as Michelle’s lover. But aside from these minor quibbles, it was really nice to see this rather old-fashioned drama unfold. Mr. Gray, who hails from New York, manages to capture another side of Brooklyn far away from the double-wide strollers and tin ceiling fancy-pants bars most of us know. In fact, it’s so otherworldly that at a certain point we weren’t even sure what decade the movie was supposed to be set in (except for the cell phone text-messaging). But it’s Joaquin Phoenix who carries the weight of the film, and he does a beautiful job conveying the many complicated layers of Leonard. Hopefully, this film won’t be his last.

Two Lovers opens Friday at Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema.