I'm perplexed by Gwyneth Paltrow. Since notching her Best Actress statuette for 1998's Shakespeare In Love, she has wandered. Not always unfruitfully: She thrives in potent small films like Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, in which she was still and sad. But she was merely incidental - if indelible - in eye candy like Iron Man and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and there have been too many junky imponderables like Paltrow's star turn in 2003's appalling stewardess comedy View From the Top.
Now comes another still, sad role in a small film, Two Lovers. This wrenching drama about broken people is not quite ravishing, but as a yearning Paltrow admirer, I will take it. Paltrow plays Michelle, an unhappy legal assistant living in a Brighton Beach apartment building. Her neighbor is Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), an unhappy photographer who has moved back in with his parents and helps with the family's dry cleaning business. Both are plummeting toward their late 30s.
The movie is chiefly concerned with Leonard, who is desperate and odd. As the film begins, Leonard leaps from a pier in a suicide attempt, and we subsequently learn about his troubled past - the scars on his arm, the hospitalization. Leonard's parents, played with warmth by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov, worry about him. He sleeps late, skips appointments, broods in a bedroom piled with junk like a teenager's. Phoenix brings a sweet, stammering intensity to the part, and if this really is his last role (he discussed, or sort of discussed, the end of his acting career when he promoted Two Lovers in that strange Letterman appearance in February), it's a distinguished swansong.
Leonard's father is about to sell his business to a friendly associate, and the families of both men conspire to fix Leonard up with the buyer's daughter (Vinessa Shaw). She is sweet, sexy and, improbably, available. But she commits the gaucheness of being a Sound of Music fan, and Leonard meanwhile has his eye on Michelle, who dates a married lawyer (Elias Koteas) from her Manhattan job.
Michelle tells Leonard that she has ADHD, and it's one of many instances when mental ailments and their pharmacological treatments come up - though the theme is never satisfyingly developed. Michelle actually has several afflictions, including a taste for recreational drugs, and Paltrow brings aching sorrow to this character, a beautiful loser.
In cellphone texts and in conversations shouted from their apartment windows, Leonard and Michelle develop an uneasy friendship - uneasy because he loves her, but her feelings are sisterly, not romantic. That dynamic sets up one of the film's most keenly observed moments, when Leonard tells Michelle the situation with the lawyer is hopeless: partly because it is, but partly because Leonard wants her for himself. The scene is a powerful reminder that passion can make us do surprising things, like tell manipulative half-truths. It's a disquieting moment in a disquieting movie about people who, approaching middle age, are still trying to grow up.