Warning: Plot spoilers below!
Director James Gray's last film based in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, was in 1994 with "Little Odessa," a title that refers to the nickname for the Russian Jewish enclave. "Little Odessa" was a family tragedy based on the return of a hit man who returns to visit his dying mother. "Two Lovers" is also a haunting film, minus the violence.
The Brighton Beach depicted here is not part of the hip, artistic, gentrifying Brooklyn; this is the borough's Old World, and its main character, Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), feels stuck there. Following a broken engagement, Leonard is depressed, occasionally suicidal and on medication. He works in his father's dry-cleaning store and lives with his concerned parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov).
Leonard meets Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) the daughter of his father's business associate. She's pretty and warm-hearted, a nice Jewish girl who meets with his parents' appproval and who senses Leonard's vulnerability. Leonard soon meets a neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), in the hallway who ignites his passion. A long-haired, slim blonde, Michelle has a drug history, is somewhat unstable and is having an affair with a married lawyer. She's exotic and carries with her the sophistication of Manhattan, where she works and attends the club scene. Leonard's parents look askance at her, while she looks toward Leonard as more of a brother than a lover. Leonard, meanwhile, gazes longingly at his golden shiksa from across the courtyard, in scenes suggesting that Gray is paying homage to Hitchcock's "Rear Window."
Leonard convinces Michelle to take off to San Francisco with him and is ready to break the chains of the old life for love and adventure 3,000 miles away. Yet his dreams are dashed, as Michelle's lawyer friend decides to leave his wife for her. Leonard, in resignation, gives Sandra the ring he intended for Michelle. As he embraces his fiance, one realizes that he's gaining a wife and a inheriting a laundry business, but that he's also settling for the life laid out for him.
Joaquin Phoenix as Leonard offers an affecting portrait of an character attempting to transcend his arrested development, yet finding himself pulled back to earth. San Francisco and Michelle are ultimately as inaccessible as his parents, the dry cleaning business and the old neighborhood are suffocating. Nearby Manhattan is depicted as a place of glamor and dynamism, while Brighton Beach is as gray as the main character's brooding frame of mind. Leonard is at cross purposes with his two lovers in this emotionally resonant film, yet the viewer can't help but empathize with his attempt, however futile, to break the bonds of his circumstances.