Friday, August 28, 2009

Bad Habits (Two Lovers and Doubt)

Compelled to explain his new-to-DVD movie Two Lovers (memo to filmmakers: not a good idea), director James Gray said, “What I was trying to get at....was a lack of irony. A lack of distance. Authentic emotionality....It’s not like one person is a jerk to the other person and then the movie is talking down to the characters, like ‘Look at them, aren’t they both idiots? Let’s laugh at them.’" Hey, you don't have to ask me twice!
As with his last picture, the wannabe 70s gangster flick Bring on the Remember the We Own the Night, Two Lovers is a showcase for Gray's specialty: navel-gazing melodrama. He's a filmmaker who has earned a cache of respect among critics for "sincerity," though his brand of earnestness reminds me more of a guy from college who spent over a year cornering unsuspecting strangers into hearing him babble about getting dumped by his girlfriend. The movie has a groaning, thudding obviousness. Troubled young Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) fails to commit suicide via a plunge off a bridge into a freezing river, and like all dry-cleaner employed gents on the brink of a mental breakdown manages to attract not one but two ravishing beauties -- the brunette (read: stable) Sandra, and the blonde (read: crackpot) Michelle. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is a proper Jewish girl who earns the approval of Leonard's parents (Moni Moshonov and a wasted-as-usual Isabella Rosellini), while Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a walk-on-the-wild-side legal assistant newly moved into Leonard's apartment complex. Leonard ardently pursues Michelle -- who is involved with a married man -- while keeping Sandra on the line.

Gray labors to remind the viewer that his universe is oppressive and grim, yet it's also a benevolent utopia where a man stands up a woman for lunch and she loves him for it, or breakdances at a nightclub and the other gal mysteriously doesn't flee the scene. We're not supposed to laugh at any of this, but we're sure as hell not asked to laugh with the film either. And, seriously, how can anyone fail to giggle with Joaquin Phoenix onscreen? Even before the actor's disconcerting offscreen spiral, I found his gurgling, red-eyed style hard to take. For all his cringeworthy emoting in Two Lovers, Phoenix seems oddly disconnected from genuine thought or feeling. To be fair, all three principals are far too old for their characters, though Shaw has a lovely presence. She's an actress to watch, just preferably not in a James Gray movie. 

Doubt, John Patrick Shanley's Oscar-grab adaptation of his own play, is also bullshit, but it's the kind of sleek Hollywood turd that flushes easily. Like many classic stage productions, it's a battle of wills between diametrically-opposed adversaries. Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius is a brass-tacks nun who runs her Catholic middle-school with draconian resolve. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn is a progressive priest who challenges Sister A's authority but also takes what may be an improper interest in the school's first black student. (The year is 1964.) Plots are hatched, voices are raised, and the movie goes nowhere with its conceit.

Most famous for scripting Moonstruck, Shanley's last directorial effort was the equally charming and criminally underrated Joe vs. the Volcano (1990). His work here is more polished -- the editor Dylan Tichenor and DP Roger Deakins contribute some momentum and gloss -- and Streep sets off sparks of malicious wit: that she is the spitting image of my seventh-grade music teacher is the highest compliment I can offer. (Never was a children's choir been more terrorized.) Most of the ensemble falls short of her example. Hoffman is as miscast portraying a charismatic priest as is Joaquin Phoenix impersonating a recognizable human being; while Amy Adams, as the younger, impressionable Sister James, struggles to be the audience surrogate but carries her nagging indecisiveness with all the gravitas of Arnold mediating an argument on Diff'rent Strokes. ("That's a good point, Dad!....That's a good point, Willis!") Still, all the performers are working against the grain. With heavy, portentous symbolism embedded in every scene (blown light bulbs, gusting winds), it's a wonder any of them hit their marks without being wheeled by dollies.

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