Friday, March 6, 2009

Two Lovers -- wanting to be happy

Director: James Gray, 2009.

Writer-director Gray teams up again with his We Own the Night star Joaquin Phoenix in this pleasing if predictable and sometimes contrived romantic drama. In what may be his last movie before embarking on a new career as a hirsute rapper, clean-shaven Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a 30-something homely schlump. More handsome than schlump-supreme Philip Seymour Hoffman, Phoenix doesn't have the acting chops of Oscar-winner Hoffman but he pulls off a convincing role as a man in need facing a tough choice.

We first see Leonard slowly walking along a bridge in Brighton Beach, the Russian-Jewish New York neighborhood. Like the dry-clothes he is dragging behind him, he is almost dragging himself along. But when he stops, drops the clothes and jumps off the bridge into the bay, we know there is something wrong. This is not his first suicide attempt. A broken engagement has deeply affected him leaving him as lost as the clothes he loses. Depressed and pathetic, he has moved back in with his parents, Reuben (Moni Moshonov) and Ruth (Isabella Rossellini) and now works in the family dry-cleaning business. He really doesn't know who he is or what he wants. He is drifting through life, seriously unhappy.

When Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), an apartment neighbor, he is instantly attracted to her. She is blond and beautiful and he is smitten. But she is a kept woman, a mistress of a rich married lawyer, and plagued with problems. His matchmaking parents, on the other hand, introduce him to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of friends to whom they are trying to sell their business. Sandra is brunette and attractive, but she does not have the glamorous mystery of Michelle.

Michelle and Sandra are the two lovers of Two Lovers. Leonard has sex with both and an inner struggle develops for which woman he loves. Is it sweet Sandra, the strong but stable girl-next-door type? His parents like her and want them together. Or is it Michelle, the sexy but fragile adventuress who has her share of inner demons?

The difference between the two women is emphasized in two contrasting pairs of scenes. The first pair show the two intimate encounters in the movie. Sandra and Leonard are sensual and organic, Michelle and Leonard are frantic and fully-clothed.

The second pair of scenes focuses on dancing and enjoyment. With Michelle and her friends Leonard goes clubbing in the Big Apple in an exclusive nightclub. Rapping en route and breakdancing when there, they own the night; but it ends with tears of frustration and sadness. When Leonard is dancing with Sandra's family it is at her brother's bar mitzvah, a traditional party during daylight hours. It ends with tears of joy and happiness.

Indeed, happiness is the theme of the movie. Ruth tells Leonard that she wants him to be happy. Sandra's father tells Leonard that he wants Sandra to be happy. The parents want their children to be happy. And Leonard wants happiness for himself. But what is happiness? This is never addressed. Happiness is generally defined as good luck, good fortune or prosperity that results in a feeling of contentment or enjoyment. Yet, prosperity does not in and of itself guarantee happiness. Many a poor person has been happier and more contented than cash-rich, relationship-poor millionaires. Happiness cannot be measured by material prosperity.

Rather, happiness must be measured against a different yardstick. Biblically, happiness, both in work and in life, is a gift of God (Ecc. 5:19). But happiness is not dependent on the circumstances, when times are good. Bad times come, too, and God is still sovereign (Ecc. 7:14). Indeed, according to J.P. Moreland, in his book, "The Lost Virtue of Happiness," true happiness comes from the pursuit of a transcendent purpose, something larger than ourselves. True happiness when our focus is outward and upward not inward.

Throughout the narrative Michelle is inward-focused. She is selfish and needy. She wants a person she can turn to in her hour of need. It could be anyone, and Leonard merely fills that role. Leonard, too, is emotionally needy, looking for his real self. He thinks he loves Michelle and will be happy with her, but he does not even know himself. Sandra, in contrast, is self-assured and content, and as such can give to others. She is selfless and accepting. Michelle may be dazzling on the outside, but Sandra has the true inner beauty. And it is Sandra who sees the inner Leonard even when he cannot. She not only sees but unconditionally accepts him, warts and all. In this curious love triangle, Leonard is the one who must decide what is right for him.

Sandra's love for Leonard illustrates God's love for us. She saw his faults, she knew his emotional instabilities, yet she was willing to accept him and love him without question. God knows us (1 Jn. 3:20); he knows our strengths and weaknesses, our glories and our peccadiloes. Yet despite our failings he loves us unconditionally, accepting us even when we don't accept ourselves. This is a kind of love that is matchless beyond compare. Who wouldn't want to experience this kind of love! In a marriage we want it. We seek it in our parents. We often desire a BFF who can give us this. But truly in Jesus we have a friend, and a God, who can and will give this love to us.

Two Lovers leaves us pondering the question how to know if we will be happy. If we choose a certain person as a mate, a life-partner, will we be happy? As we consider this, we can meditate and pray for wisdom and guidance (Jas. 1:15). Much of our happiness comes from the attitudes we bring to a relationship. When we are accepting of the other's faults we honor their vulnerability and enable a transparency that is trust-building. We all want to be loved. Perhaps we need to be more loving to find true happiness.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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