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By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/10/2009 8:02:38 PM ET 2009-02-11T01:02:38
REVIEW

If you’ve been searching for a non-addictive, non-chemical cure for insomnia, “Two Lovers” may be the answer to your prayers. For those of us who prefer to stay awake at the movies, however, it’s more than a little disappointing.

Joaquin Phoenix has been getting lots of press lately over his decision to abandon movies to become a rapper — or his attempts to fake people into thinking so, depending on who you ask — but if the option were to retire or to make more movies like “Two Lovers,” then he’s making absolutely the right choice.

Phoenix plays Leonard, a slightly disturbed young Jewish man who attempted suicide years earlier when his fiancée left him. Working in his parents’ dry cleaners and living in their Brighton Beach apartment, he seems adrift in his own world, watching TV and taking black-and-white photographs of storefronts.

Leonard’s dreary life changes when two very different women come on the scene. He meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the lobby of his building one day and realizes he can see directly into her apartment across the courtyard. Michelle’s the kind of woman who screams both “trouble” and “shikseh” at first glance, and so of course Leonard is immediately besotted.

The other lover in question is Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), whose parents are friends and business associates of Leonard’s parents. It’s obvious why the old folks want these two kids to get together, but Sandra’s attraction to Leonard is never spelled out very well by screenwriters James Gray (who also directed) and Richard Menello. Leonard often acts indifferent to Sandra, yet she sleeps with him almost right away.

Leonard’s nerdy earnestness appeals to Michelle, who’s currently the kept woman of a married lawyer (Elias Koteas) who keeps saying he’s going to leave his wife. Meanwhile, Sandra’s parents plan a merger of their dry-cleaning empire with Leonard’s parents, and the Cohens take Leonard even more to heart when he agrees to photograph their son’s bar mitzvah.

The big problem with “Two Lovers” is that you won’t care about what happens to Leonard, much less which woman wins his heart. Phoenix gets so Method-y about the character’s insecurities and weirdnesses that you can’t imagine two babes like Paltrow (who’s singularly unconvincing here, incidentally) and Shaw wanting to be anywhere near him.

The film clocks in at 110 minutes, but between the dreary story and the oppressively gray cinematography (by Joaquín Baca-Asay), you’ll swear it was twice as long. Even lively performers like Koteas, Isabella Rossellini and Julie Budd (making a long-awaited return to the big screen 27 years after “The Devil and Max Devlin”) can’t cut through the murk. (Incidentally, I never bought Rossellini as anything but Italian and Catholic for a second in this film, even though she was great as an Orthodox mother in “Left Luggage” — maybe it’s the hair that betrays her.)

The one thing “Two Lovers” has going for it is a brutally honest ending, but you’ve really got to work to get there. This is a date movie for couples who want to break up. Acrimoniously.

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