An involving, ultimately touching romantic drama about a young man's struggle deciding between the two women in his life.

An involving, ultimately touching romantic drama about a young man’s struggle deciding between the two women in his life, “Two Lovers” reps a welcome change of pace for director James Gray from his run of crime mellers. Well acted by Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw, this very New York tale is old-fashioned in good ways that have to do with solid storytelling, craftsmanship and emotional acuity. Developing an audience will be another matter altogether; its central romantic dynamic would be entirely accessible to a mass audience, but pic’s smallish nature and lack of real B.O. names suggest that interest will need to be built among discerning viewers via fest exposure and critical support, leading into gradual platform release by a dedicated distrib.

Gray developed a following, among some Yank cinephiles but far more widely in France, with three Gotham-set crime dramas, “Little Odessa,” “The Yards” and last year’s Cannes entry “We Own the Night.” But opinions of those films have little bearing on what one’s reaction to “Two Lovers” will be, as its intent, emotional temperature and accomplishment are quite different.

Inspired in part by Dostoevsky’s story “White Nights,” Gray and co-scripter Richard Menello have cooked up a contemporary love story that could have taken place anytime; except for the characters’ addiction to cellphones and one use of a computer, the film almost has a ’50s feel, especially in the interchange among friends and neighbors and in how two of the characters interrelate between windows across a courtyard.

At the film’s heart is the eternal and vexing conflict a man can feel over pursuing a bewitching, sexually fascinating neurotic and choosing a good, attractive but less mysterious woman who’s the more sensible partner. Not that the man is such a winner himself. Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix) has recently moved back into his parents’ modestly comfortable Brighton Beach apartment after a cancelled engagement to a woman he loved. On meds for a bipolar condition, Leonard is a sometimes diffident guy who dabbles in photography but works at his dad’s dry cleaning establishment, a business that soon may be merged into a small chain owned by the Cohen family.

It’s through these family negotiations that Leonard meets Sandra Cohen (Shaw), an open, seemingly uncomplicated young lady who makes no secret of her interest in Leonard, an interest he soon takes advantage of. Perhaps the only little smirk the film provokes is having two such gorgeous women as Sandra and new neighbor Michelle (Paltrow) virtually fall into moody Leonard’s lap almost simultaneously.

Sandra is someone Leonard is familiar with, like family, while Michelle is something else again; tall, blond and a bit unhealthy looking, the vivacious lady mesmerizes Leonard, especially as he can easily glimpse her through her apartment window across the way. He thinks he’s as good as closed the deal when she invites him to join her and two girlfriends for a night of clubbing and takes Ecstasy in the car on the way, so he’s later crushed to learn that she’s got a rich boyfriend who’s married with kids.

But this is just the beginning of Michelle’s manipulations; she’s the type of woman with an unerring talent for requesting something of the men in her life when the timing is most inconvenient. Willing to stand Sandra up whenever Michelle calls, Leonard agrees to go on a weird dinner date with her and her b.f. Ronald (Elias Koteas), so that he can make a judgment as to whether he’ll ever leave his family for her — all this, of course, while Leonard is dying to get Michelle for himself. It all becomes markedly more complicated and wrenching for all parties until the final reckoning, which is handled with an estimable degree of tact, delicacy and honesty, to quite moving effect.

Phoenix, who appeared in “The Yards” and “We Own the Night,” deftly conveys Leonard’s complicated mix of personality traits; he’s shifty, selfish, vulnerable, uncertain and keen to love someone again. Because of this combination and his lack of clear ambition, one is never sure what kind of decisions Leonard is apt to make, which builds interest and suspense over his fate. Paltrow very accurately captures the sort of toxic catnip men often lose their heads over, while Shaw, usually cast as a bombshell, here puts fine shadings on a nice Jewish girl whose favorite movie is “The Sound of Music,” which she insists is “underrated.”

Koteas registers sharply as a man on an emotional tightrope, while Moni Monoshov and Isabella Rossellini warmly embody Leonard’s good-hearted parents.

A major pleasure is the sure-handed use of particular New York locations, both in Brooklyn and Manhattan, that serve the story resonant ways. Tech contributions are strong in a traditional style.

Two Lovers

U.S.-France

Production

A 2929 Prods. and Wild Bunch presentation of a Tempesta Films production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Donna Gigliotti, James Gray, Anthony Katagas. Executive producers, Agnes Mentre, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban, Marc Butan. Co-producers, Mike Upton, Couper Samuelson. Directed by James Gray. Screenplay, Gray, Richard Menello.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Arri widescreen), Joaquin Baca-Asay; editor, John Axelrad; music supervisor, Dana Sano; production designer, Happy Massee; art director, Peter Zumba; costume designer, Michael Clancy; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Tom Nelson; sound designer-supervising sound editor, Douglas Murray; assistant director, Doug Torres; casting, Douglas Aibel. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 19, 2008. Running time: 109 MIN.

Cast

Leonard Kraditor - Joaquin Phoenix Michelle Rausch - Gwyneth Paltrow Sandra Cohen - Vinessa Shaw Ruth Kraditor - Isabella Rossellini Ronald Blatt - Elias Koteas Reuben Kraditor - Moni Monoshov

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