Joaquin Phoenix is a great actor. He was amazing in films likes Gladiator, To Die For, Quills, The Village, Signs, and Walk the Line, among many others. He’s been nominated for two Academy Awards. He’s an actor of mysterious, artsy repute, born of cultish hippie Vegans in Puerto Rico and brother of the late River Phoenix. But Joaquin’s best acting performance so far is happening right now, in 2009, and you can see it in theaters.
I’m talking about his work in the new film, Two Lovers.
The film, directed by James Gray, is a moody romance about a guy in Brooklyn named Leonard (Phoenix) who falls in love with two women (Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw), for different reasons. To put it simplistically, the film is about Leonard’s struggle to decide which woman and which life he wants to pursue.
But don’t be deceived by how trite or familiar this film sounds. It is a totally fresh, beautifully told, heartbreaking film from start to finish. When I saw it this weekend, it was exactly the thing I needed to wash the lingering Watchmen bad taste out of my mouth. Unlike Watchmen, which glories in depravity and makes a pop art spectacle out of sin and frailty, Two Lovers approaches the subject delicately and with admirable nuance. The film captures the tensions and torments of the human psyche—which so often leads us astray, even when we long for the good.
Undoubtedly, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in this film is the thing to write home about. It is stunning. He makes his character simultaneously lovable and loathsome, identifiable and alien. It’s a deep, layered performance that always errs on the side of restraint, normalcy, and empathy—even when so much of the “let’s bring the house down!” brand of show-offy acting (which seems so fashionable these days) would easily beckon Joaquin to go elsewhere with the character. Instead, Joaquin imbues Leonard with a tender, quiet, acutely felt brokenness that is never expressly rendered but rather sketched in silhouette.
In many ways, the character of Leonard is an archetype. He’s a grown man, living with his parents and working for their laundromat, unsure of what he wants in life and generally prone to misanthropy and bouts of suicidal depression. He’s haunted by the departure from his life of his former fiancé, and is sincerely stumbling through a recovery period in which he wants to do the best by himself, but has an excuse if things turn out otherwise. The way he talks, walks, works, interacts… it’s all working class normal. Leonard is just another messed up thirtysomething in New York.
And yet it is a testament to Joaquin Phoenix and his formidable talents, that Leonard becomes the most engrossing, tragic, life-encompassing film character I have seen in some time. Perhaps I am reading more depth into this character than I should, but that is sort of the beauty of this performance: it is refreshingly open-ended and complicated in a good way. We know who Leonard is, to be sure. We know him well. But there is a mystery and unknowable (and yet familiar) quality to him as well, in the same way that Monet’s Water Lilies can be mundane and comprehensible one minute and abstract and surprising the next.
I don’t mean to compare Joaquin Phoenix to Monet or anything. I just want to point out that this performance—if indeed it is his last film performance (hopefully not the case)—is definitely his Water Lilies.