Two Lovers (dir: James Gray)
After all the bright, cute, colorful romantic dramas and comedies I’m obliged to sit through as a film critic, Two Lovers is as authentic as anything I’ve seen when it comes to the complications and frustrations and compromises of love and desire. I’ve not much liked the past films of James Gray but I like this one. It feels observed and real, and the emotions are messy and unkempt.
Joaquin Phoenix fidgets and frowns and stares off into space as Leonard. If you saw his performance on David Letterman, it’s a lot like that, only less extreme and minus the beard. He’s messed up, suffering from depression, recovering from a broken engagement, living with his parents and working in the family dry cleaning business. His parents have played matchmaker, putting Leonard in the path of Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the attractive and very smitten daughter of a business colleague. Leonard, however, is instantly smitten with a new neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). You could say she’s as messed up as Leonard is (she is, after all, in a doomed relationship with a married man who keeps promising to leave his wife and family but never quite quite gets around to it), but all three are a mess. Gray (who also co-wrote the script) skimps on fleshing out Sandra’s own life and backstory, but his direction and her performance sketch out a character suffering from low self-esteem and suggest her own damaged past.
Leonard plays the reliable chum just to be around Michelle, and his discomfort as the third wheel in a dinner date with Michelle and her married lover is a painfully well-observed scene. The intimate awkwardness of it all is discomforting, and perhaps the most uncomfortable observations have to do with his behavior at home, where the grown man acts like he’s once again the little boy rebelling against his parents, closing himself off in his room and literally sneaking out of the house to see Michelle. It’s as if the suicide attempt (that is never really discussed but at times alluded to) wiped out his past out and he can’t muster the energy or the motivation to start over again. Moving back home has just put him in a holding pattern and he’s got no flight plan out.
The entire cast is superb. Isabella Rossellini quietly creates an entire mother-son relationship in a few scenes and a handful of lines. Paltrow makes Michelle’s energetic front a facade to hide her panic. Director and co-writer Gray does little to flesh out Sandra (the biggest weakness of the script), but Shaw plays her with a lack of self-esteem that suggests her own troubled history.
It all plays out in the cold light of Brighton Beach in the winter, where the howling, hollow wind has a way of making even the most intimate moments feel desperate.
Read my review at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.
Ben X (dir: Nic Balthazar)
Ben X is not a subtle film. It is a passionate film and I found that passion compelling and involving and completely riveting. Nic Balthazar based his story, about a teenage boy with Asperger’s Syndrome (a mild form of autism) who suffers from bullying at a public school and escapes his torment in an online video game world (a place where he at least understands “the rules”), on a real life event, but transformed it in the telling. He wrote it first as a novel and then as a play. He makes his directorial debut with this screen incarnation, and he finds a vivid cinematic approach. But what’s most satisfying is how Balthazar takes the situations and cues familiar from years of (often very good, just as often completely exploitative) movies about teen suicide, high school violence and bullying, and kids who escape into the fantasy of video games, and defies expectations with each step. Not flamboyantly, not even necessarily defiantly, but with a measure of compassion and empowerment.
Ben X had me in knots. My mind was always running ahead and anticipating the worst of every potential situation. I couldn’t help but feel as helpless as this boy. And by the end, I was almost cheering at the way the film’s fantasy of empowerment felt so good, in part because Balthazar knew it was a fantasy and gave it to us anyway.
Is it an accurate portrait of the experience of an autistic person? I can’t pass judgment, but from my limited experience (I grew up knowing a number of autistic children), it is the best I’ve seen in the movies, a valiant and dedicated effort to explain and help us understand such an experience, sensitive to the internal life, empathetic to the external symptoms and behaviors, bringing the two together into a full life.
There’s nothing false or insincere in Balthazar’s contrivances. We know all too well how these stories usually end. The fantasy of Ben X is a gift to his audience, both teens and adults. I, for one, appreciate it.
Read my P-I review here.