Posted March 12, 2009 by William Dunmyer in Uncategorized

Two Lovers: Artistic and Thoughtful, But Under-Developed

“Two Lovers” is a melancholy film about broken people struggling to find love. Its major strength is its soulful and intelligent cinematography. This is due to the great talent of director James Gray, who still gets bizarrely little press in this country. (From what I hear, he’s almost a household name in France.)

Also remarkable is the film’s sense of place. It is set in the Brighton Beach area of New York City, which is deep in Brooklyn. Let’s put it this way: no Manhattanites ever go there. But there’s something distinctive and flavorful about the outer edges of the city, and Gray brings this to the screen beautifully.

The cast is also very good, led by Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. Isabella Rossellini does a fine job in a supporting role. She is still luminous.

But there are substantial weaknesses, especially in the editing and the script. Gray’s approach to editing is so pedestrian here that the film gets flat and one-dimensional about halfway through. Many scenes also are too long, causing the film to slacken in a yawn-inducing way. The problem with the script is that the story is not developed enough. The core elements are good, but there is not much more than the skeleton of a good story. I needed to know more about these people and wanted to see them dealing with more things. The bare-bones minimalism made for a viewing experience that was not that enriching. If we had gotten to know more about the supporting characters, the film would have been expanded to great effect.

I have said it before, but it bears repeating. We have many great directors in America today but almost no great screenwriters. This has to change. Cinema is not just a visual medium. Is something missing in film schools today? We appear to be teaching aspiring filmmakers how to use cameras but not how to develop stories. Given that today’s artistic filmmakers typically write their own scripts (following the European auteurist tradition), it is crucial that film schools get as serious about screenwriting as they are about cinematography. Film is going to die as an art form if we do not attend to this problem. Viewers want deeply engaging stories when they go to the movies.


Phoenix plays a lower-middle-class young man of Russian-Jewish extraction who has some psychological challenges and has tried to commit suicide at least once. The word “bipolar” is mentioned as are anti-depressants, but the point is not belabored. There is no psychobabble in the script, thank God. Currently staying with his parents in Brooklyn, this fragile young man is trying to regain his balance. He has begun to date a nice, but slightly plain girl from the neighborhood (played nicely by Vinessa Shaw). It’s unfortunate that the film pays so little attention to her. About all we learn about her is that she’s humble and enamored of Phoenix’s character.

Then someone new moves into the neighborhood, a beautiful young woman with a job in Manhattan and quite a few problems. This more exciting girl is played by Paltrow. A friendship grows immediately between her and Phoenix, but he wishes it could be more as he is falling in love very quickly with her. Gradually her life-difficulties are revealed, and the possibility of romance is thrown into question. Complicating matters is the fact that she is dating a wealthy married man and appears to be in love with him. He can take her to four-star restaurants and the Metropolitan Opera.

These plot details might give the impression that “Two Lovers” is a soap opera. It most certainly is not. Gray’s concern is to explore in a quiet way the inner space of the characters as they seek happiness and deal with disappointment. I like this approach, but I wish there had been more exploration.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.