| 02 Mar 2015 | 04:26

    the foundation of new york city comprises multitudes of people-wall street traders, upper west side mothers, pretentious artists who pose and preen in galleries and, of course, the help. but one of the more popular of nyc creatures (at least in hollywood) is the party girl. from holly golightly to the ari graynor character in nick and norah's infinite playlist, these are the girls who wear less than they drink, who turn on their magical charisma and suck you into their messy orbits. the lucky bystanders wriggle out of their grip after a single night, but those who don't know how to recognize their defining characteristics (cocktails, drugs, wild dancefloor gyrations, blithe self-destruction) can find themselves consumed by their needs. and, surprisingly, the prim gwyneth paltrow turns in a dead-on performance as one of these nyc creatures opposite joaquin phoenix in two lovers. a suicidally depressed son of dry cleaners, leonard (phoenix) is first glimpsed jumping off a pier in brighton beach. fleeing his rescuers, he returns home only to find that his parents have invited over a couple who will be buying out their business-along with the couple's warm and pretty daughter, sandra (vinessa shaw). but their burgeoning romance is constantly threatened by leonard's neighbor, michelle (paltrow), the kind of woman who unconsciously attracts men to her and then emasculates them by turning them into the girlfriend who can offer a man's opinion about her messy dating life.

    once leonard lays eyes on michelle, his fate is sealed. effortlessly gorgeous in the way of blond nyc party girls, michelle is the opposite of the sweet, brunette sandra. plus, she has the added attraction of being merely a temporary visitor to brighton beach, while leonard and sandra both remain tied to the neighborhood by their families. with sandra, leonard can foresee his entire future, but michelle represents all of the most impossible-seeming dreams he can imagine. watching leonard navigate through a wintery brighton beach, we can feel his life slowly closing in on him, and only michelle seems like a viable escape route.

    if two lovers is, indeed, joaquin phoenix's last film (as he has claimed), it's a shame he's ending his career with such a lackluster character. exhibiting none of the spark-and-snarl or the danger of his best performances, leonard requires little of phoenix other than to brood and moon over michelle, trying to impress her in various, embarrassing ways. but paltrow, flitting in and out of leonard's dreary world like a bird of paradise, is surprisingly perfect as the idealized woman whose gorgeous exterior masks a welter of insecurities and neuroses. that she'll ultimately let leonard down is never in doubt; the question is how far she'll let his dreams go before she apologetically crushes them, tears streaming down her face. for a movie with the word "lovers" in the title, two lovers may be a dark and dreary affair, but one not without its rewards. -- two lovers directed by james gray, running time: 110 min.