Big Apple Gray 

Dour romantic drama Two Lovers underachieves.

Director James Gray (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night) is a New York City auteur through and through. Focusing on the striving, lower-middle-class lives of white, ethnic outer-borough NYC'ers, Gray's films have tended to come across as downbeat Scorsese — Mean Streets minus R&B.

With Two Lovers, Gray transitions from crime story to romantic drama, letting a little '80s/'90s Woody Allen into his Big Apple matrix — Husbands and Wives plus Xanax.

Set in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where the sun apparently never shines, Two Lovers centers on the damaged life of Leonard Kraditor (frequent Gray collaborator Joaquin Phoenix), a thirtysomething sad-sack living with suffocating parents and working at their Neptune Avenue dry cleaners as he recovers from a broken engagement and at least a couple of suicide attempts.

As the story advances, the socially awkward Leonard suddenly finds himself confronted with two romantic options in the form of a pair of otherwise distinct lanky beauties: Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is the good-girl daughter of his dad's prospective business partner — a stable, eager, understanding potential life partner. Then there's Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the troubled bombshell across the courtyard with a past substance-abuse problem and a shady married boyfriend.

As the triangle is set up, Sandra is what Leonard needs (or at least their parents think so), but Michelle, with her sheen of Manhattanite sophistication, is what he wants. Their courtship takes on an oddly adolescent air — spying on each other across the courtyard, emotional rooftop meet-ups, and dance-club drama.

Phoenix is playing to type here as a brooding loony (that un-PC term a reference more to Phoenix's actorly idiosyncrasies than his bipolar character), and with his mumbly speaking, frumpy gray/brown wardrobe, and 35-going-on-15 manner, it's hard to believe Leonard would find himself in such a romantic dilemma.

Based on a Dostoevsky story, there's the shape of a good romantic drama here, and, though Two Lovers never supplies Leonard's decisions with the desired gravity, the film has a pleasing (if not really surprising) final stretch and a nice, emotionally ambiguous ending.

I blame the movie's underperformance on direction that's too uniformly glum and especially on a lead performance that left me cold. I've never been a great fan of Phoenix and found his mannered, Method performance here more distracting than affecting. In the end, Two Lovers throws off echoes of better movies, and not just by Scorsese and Allen: Elaine May's great nervy 1972 comedy The Heartbreak Kid, where Charles Grodin is lured from his new bride by shiksa goddess Cybill Shepherd, and the 2001 Israeli sleeper Late Marriage, in which a son is similarly torn between the woman he wants and the woman his parents want for him.

Two Lovers

Opens Friday, March 20th

Ridgeway Four

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