Love is strange, Joaquin Phoenix stranger

Women complain, with merit, about modern romantic comedies that shackle beautiful, accomplished women with loser guys.

Their protests were on my mind as I watched "Two Lovers," which is not romantic and not a comedy, but features Joaquin Phoenix as a lumpen, suicidal, friendless, moping slug named Leonard who lives on a cot in his parents' apartment and sponges off his dad's dry-cleaning business.

This makes him, in today's movie universe, irresistible to women.

"I want to take care of you," says the lovely Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), recruited by his folks to draw the inert Leonard out of his shell of self-absorption.

She sees something in Leonard that I don't, and most critics see something in Phoenix's performance that I don't. He's been getting raves for his work in "Two Lovers," but I didn't detect much difference between what he does here and what he did on Letterman.

If there's a great performance, it's by Shaw, who must convince us that she's a woman so smitten by Leonard that she bypasses the first date and sleeps with him right there in his dingy cubbyhole.

Leonard does not drop to his knees and thank God for his good fortune. In fact, he makes it fairly clear that he doesn't like this girl, and regards her attentions as a minor annoyance.

He keeps her at arm's length as he moons over the shiksa next door (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is herself involved with a married man and sticks Leonard with the emasculating "friend" label.

He spends the bulk of "Two Lovers" trying to convince her otherwise. Which gal will he end up with? The movie at least has a novel ending - it bypasses dog-eared concepts of romantic destiny - but it's gloomy. All's fair in love and war, and it's a war of attrition.

Phoenix has said that this is his last role - he's taken to making weirdo appearances on talk shows, announcing that he wants to be a hip hop artist and appearing on stage as though drunk.

He may be falling into an abyss, or it may be a stunt, some kind of public performance art. Either way, it's more engrossing than what goes on in the "Two Lovers." *

Produced by Donna G*gl*ott*, James Gray and Anthony Katagas, d*rected by James Gray, wr*tten by James Gray and R*c Menello, d*str*buted by Magnol*a P*ctures.


Two Lovers

Directed by James Gray. With Carmen M. Herlihy, Moni Moshonov, Joaquin Phoenix, Elias Koteas, Samantha Ivers, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julie Budd, Nick Gillie, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 40 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language, some sexuality and brief drug use).