To watch Joaquin Phoenix's cryptic appearance on David Letterman the other night in light of his performance in James Gray's Two Lovers (Magnolia Pictures) is to be doubly puzzled. How could this heavily bearded weirdo, who broke long, uncomfortable silences with only disconnected monosyllabic mumbling and at one point stuck his wad of chewed gum under Letterman's desk, be the same man who has just delivered the performance of his career?
There are multiple theories as to what Phoenix's public decompensation is all about. (He announced in October that he was giving up acting for good to pursue a career as a musician and has since had one disastrous live show in which he rapped inaudibly and fell off the stage.) He could be spiraling down into alcohol or drug addiction—the actor has done a stint in rehab in the past. He could be mentally ill. Or the whole thing could be an elaborate hoax, staged with the help of his friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck, who's planning to direct a documentary that's ostensibly about Phoenix's transition from acting to rapping but will (according to theory No. 3) turn out to be the chronicle of an Andy Kaufman-style piece of performance art.
Watching Two Lovers is the best argument for the validity of the prank theory. There's just no way an actor capable of this level of precision and attention to detail can be simultaneously spiraling down some funky mental rabbit hole. (Is there?) The Joaquin Phoenix of Two Lovers is at the top of his game, going places he's never gone before as a performer, and the passion with which he throws himself into playing the lumbering, insecure, vulnerable Leonard Kraditor suggests that it's entirely plausible that the bushy-haired mumbler on Letterman's couch is just another finely calibrated invention.
Leonard is the only son of an Israeli immigrant couple in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn (wonderfully played by Isabella Rossellini and Israeli actor Moni Moshonov). Recently released from the hospital after a suicide attempt, he's moved in with his parents and started work at his father's dry-cleaning business. The Kraditors are intent on fixing up Leonard with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of their business partner. Sandra's a warm, sweet, stable Jewish girl, everything an anxious parent could want for her bipolar son, and she and Leonard tentatively circle each other—until he's distracted by Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a diaphanous WASP who's just moved in to the Kraditors' apartment building. Michelle, the kept mistress of a married man (Elias Koteas), is a troubled and bewitching narcissist, the kind of girl who makes sure every man she meets falls in love with her, just in case he comes in handy later.
So, Leonard's trap is pretty well set—and when your trap is set in a James Gray movie, you can be sure the iron jaws will slam shut with a vengeance. Gray, the idiosyncratic director of Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night, specializes in dark, brooding dramas set in the depths of white ethnic Brooklyn (a world he renders in dense and convincing detail). Gray's fatalism can be ponderous—his movies are like unapologetically heavy holiday meals—but his commitment to emotional honesty is impressive. And in Phoenix, he's found his true muse. This is Gray's third movie with Phoenix and the first one without a crime element to the story. Two Lovers' violence is exclusively of the heart but nonetheless devastating for that.
In The Yards (2000), a handsome Phoenix, lit from above by great cinematographer Harris Savides, looked like a figure from a Caravaggio painting. Here, he's a pudgy, pasty, stammering schlub—but a curiously charismatic one, believable as a romantic foil for both Paltrow and the quietly lovely Shaw. The contrast drawn between the two women is overly schematic and pat, and Leonard's torn-between-two-lovers dilemma is, arguably, not the stuff of high drama. But the movie's occasionally risible sincerity—Gray's assumption that these imperfect people and their ill-considered love affairs really matter—is what sets the flawed but riveting Two Lovers apart from other recent films about young New Yorkers in love.
And so I'm going with the theory that the apparently unhinged Phoenix is having a laugh at our expense. It wouldn't be the first time he's messed with fans' heads: On the red carpet for a Walk the Line premiere in 2005, Phoenix suddenly asked an AP reporter, "Do I have a large frog in my hair?" "No, you look great," replied the confused journalist. "I'm not worried about the looks," Phoenix told him. "I'm worried about the sensation of my brain being eaten." I'm almost sure—almost—that the imaginary amphibian, like the Letterman appearance and the projected rap career, was Phoenix's playful way of coping with the brain-eating pressures of celebrity, an attempt to yank the rug (or the red carpet) from beneath his audience's expectations. Let's hope so, because I want Phoenix sober and sane enough to keep making movies like Two Lovers.