Rating: * * *
Verdict: That Joaquin Phoenix is a wonder.
Modest in both scale and ambition, this indie offering may include one complication too many among its ingredients. But that's compensated for by a consistent richness of texture and a terrific main performance by Phoenix, whose depiction of emotional turmoil puts one in mind of a young Brando.
He plays Leonard, whom we meet when he walks off the Brighton Beach pier in a none-too-convincing suicide attempt. "I think he's tried again," his fretful mother (Rossellini) tells his dad (Moshonov) when he arrives home saturated, but we can already tell this isn't the first time.
The reasons (and there are at least two) for his emotional state emerge only slowly and as we get to know him, he is getting to know two strikingly different women.
He's being unsubtly matchmade with Sandra (Shaw), the daughter of one of his father's business associates in the tight-knit Brooklyn Jewish community of which he's a reluctant member. She's beautiful, caring and radiantly sincere. By contrast, Michelle (Paltrow), who lives in his building, is a needy, neurotic lissom blonde with a tangled romantic life and a recent history of substance abuse.
There are no prizes for guessing which way Leonard's fancy is turning but the nicely turned script, full of excellently authentic dialogue, has plenty of surprises in store.
Writer-director Gray is, by all accounts, popular in France and that's no surprise. There's a distinctly European feel about this film's framing and pace, and in the way Gray gives scenes the room to build.
Watching both main characters making such bad choices is a bit like watching a car crash, yet oddly the film doesn't feel depressing, even when it's being doggedly earnest. If you're not a Paltrow fan, it may stretch your patience with her to breaking point; I've always thought her a colourless actress and she's got her work cut out here, playing a whiny pain in the arse. But Phoenix, who crafts small gestures finely and plays big moments with restraint and subtlety, is a wonder to behold.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas, Moni Moshonov
Director: James Gray
Running time: 110 mins
Rating: M (sex scenes, offensive language.