It's not that writer-director James Gray makes bad movies. It's just that it's difficult to remember anything about the movies he makes -- they're so low-key, they make similarly quiet and brooding pictures look as rambunctious as Transformers by comparison. 2007's We Own the Night starred Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg and had something to do with bickering brothers on opposite sides of the law. 2000's The Yards also starred Phoenix and Wahlberg and somehow involved an ex-con with good intentions being dragged back into a life of crime. And all I recall about 1994's Little Odessa is that, uh, it included actors and buildings and perhaps a few props.
Two Lovers seems as likely as Gray's previous pictures to fizzle away, Alka-Seltzer-style, until there's little left but a faint aftertaste. Marginally interesting but not exactly successful, this Brooklyn-set drama casts Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, who lives with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) after a failed suicide attempt sparked by a romantic fallout. The folks try to steer Leonard into a relationship with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a business associate, but even as Leonard tentatively tries to make a go of it with this insecure woman, he finds himself drawn to his new neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a self-described basketcase who's having an affair with a married man (Elias Koteas).
To his credit, Gray doesn't try to sugarcoat any of the relationships in the picture -- as in real life, lonelyhearts are frequently drawn to people they should probably avoid, and declarations of love are often merely covers for ugly truths. But crucially, Gray and his leading man never make us care for Leonard Kraditor, nor do they find ways of making him interesting. Sandra and especially Michelle are also flawed, yet the actresses inhabiting the parts add nuance to their characters' imperfections. Phoenix, on the other hand, merely seems distracted, as if he was already looking ahead to his new career as the music man.