Joaquin Phoenix, one of the most gifted actors of his generation, has arrived at a pivotal juncture in his career: the end of it. Or so he would have us believe. He’s announced that “Two Lovers” will be his final film, and that he’s transitioning to a career as a rapper. He’s grown a long beard and done interviews – such as the now infamous one on Letterman – which have suggested he’s suffered a nervous breakdown. It would make for a tragic Hollywood trainwreck were it not a practical joke.
Not a particularly amusing one, but a put-on, nonetheless. Tip-off number one: Phoenix is filming the prank. He’s hired Casey Affleck, brother of Ben, to follow him around ostensibly to direct a documentary lampooning entertainment industry hubris. Tip-off number two: An unnamed friend conveniently “leaked” the following to Entertainment Weekly: “It’s an art project for him. He’s going full out. He’s probably told his reps that he’s quit acting. Joaquin is very smart. This is very conscious. He has a huge degree of control.”
And, in fact, his reps are playing along as though they’ve been punk’d. Phoenix’s publicist, Susan Patricola, told MTV News that “the transition from one career to another is never seamless. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Joaquin came from a musical family, in addition to winning a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Johnny Cash. He intends on exploring his musical interests despite speculative, negative or positive reac- tions.”
Of course, Patricola neglects to allude to either the bizarro beard and shades makeover or mumbly, borderline comatose demeanor on the Late Show. Neither of which exactly screams hip hop artist in training, though the whole business does smack of a foray into Andy Kaufman-style comedy. My theory, on the other hand, is that something else en- tirely is going on here.
There is indeed a method to Phoenix’s make-believe madness, in my humble opinion. It just doesn’t have anything to do with hip hop music or documentaries. (Can you think of three people who’d pay to see a movie about the actor pursuing a rap career?) What we have here is, I believe, much less than meets the eye. What we have here is nothing more than a movie star doing what movie stars always do, making the rounds to pro-mote his latest project, albeit a tad more conceptually than most.
“Two Lovers” is, after all, the story of a mumbling Brooklyn oddball named Leonard who has had a nervous breakdown and has dabbled in writing and singing rap. He even gives a brief performance in one scene. So, in essence, Phoenix’s recent antics may be viewed as a walking-talking trailer for his third collaboration with writer-director James Gray (after “The Yards” and “We Own the Night”). If I’m right, it ranks with the most intriguing promotional stunts in film history. If I’m wrong, well, I don’t even want to think about it. And don’t get any funny ideas about sending me his CD on my birthday. Please.
This is a gentle, understated character-driven piece that has more in common with European romantic dramas than those made in this country as a rule. The narrative thrust concerns Leonard’s pharmaceutically treated instability (read ten reviews and you’ll see ten different psychological conditions attributed to the character, but his problem is never specifically identified in the script). It prevents him from distinguishing between the true love offered by a caring young Jewish woman (Vinessa Shaw), whose family is about to merge its dry cleaning business with that owned by Leonard’s, and the obviously bogus illusion of bliss proffered by a self-loathing and drug abusing, though babeliscious, shiksa played by Gwyneth Paltrow.
Many of the picture’s most endearing elements have little or nothing to do with Phoenix. Particularly well done, for example, are the scenes which depict the growing closeness between the two families. I can’t remember the last time I saw Jewish parents portrayed in a motion picture with such warmth. In the hands of most writers, every Jewish mother is a joke waiting to happen, but Isabella Rossellini is here a model of maternal tenderness and empathy.
Frankly, I’d preferred to have spent more of the film’s 108 minutes with them and less with Leonard who, to be frank, presents as rather a dull boy. Certainly the character is far too stunted to merit in real life anything approaching the level of female attention lav- ished on him here. The movie benefits from a powerful sense of place and a number of nicely observed moments, but I have to say it suffers from a serious case of the We Can See What’s Coming A Mile Aways.
“One of the best films of the year,” reviewers began raving roughly five weeks into 2009. Compared to what – “Pink Panther 2,” “Fired Up”? OK, one of the best films about dry cleaners, sure. Anything more than that is as misleading as it is premature.