WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is not a happy man. When we first meet him, he’s throwing himself into the icy cold bay. Whether he’s trying to kill himself or it’s just a cry for help, it’s clear that this is a man who needs some warmth in his life.
His mother (Isabella Rossellini) sets him up with the archetypal “nice Jewish girl” Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), who’s sweet and loving enough, and – perhaps – inexplicably – falls deeply for Leonard.
All would be fine, were it not for the fact that a chance encounter in the hallway with his stunning new neighbour Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) throws his recovery off course.
Soon, Leonard is tumbling unwittingly down the dangerous path of trying to pursue something with an angel, when there’s a perfectly good woman right under his nose.
Or to play around with that much-loved proverb, if you have a “bird in the hand,” is it really wise to be rummaging around in the bush for a second one – particularly if that second one is paranoid, unstable, and seems to be more interested in someone else herself anyway – and the one in your hand is pretty much perfect.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
This is a powerful drama about a man’s emotional breakdown, made all the more powerful by the knowledge of what happened to Joaquin Phoenix after he shot it – quitting the movie business to become a hip-hop artist and, with a scruffy Santa beard, becoming a gum-chewing laughing stock to millions across America with his clue-less appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.
He’ll be throwing himself into the icy cold bay, next.
Many viewers will identify with the quandary – my partner is OK, but just imagine if I could get HER! In some cases, it might be a realistic proposition, but when, as outsiders, we can see that he’s humiliating himself while sabotaging his one chance at true happiness, you find yourself cringing and wanting to shout at the screen.
Some people could learn a lesson or two from watching this film.
Paltrow’s Michelle is so cruel and cold that she’s perhaps the most beautiful baddie in recent film history – but it’s not so much that she’s being evil – she’s just taking whatever she can get – and it’s Leonard’s stupid fault for letting her get away with it.
The film’s a big change of pace for director James Gray, whose previous films – We Own The Night and The Yards – are violent tales of gangsters, cops and drug dealers.
They also featured Joaquin Phoenix, but here, without a gun in sight, the pair seem equally at home with an emotionally menacing movie, presenting us with a central character who’s even more damaged and self-destructive than his gun-toting predecessors.
There’s little light among the shade in this deliberately downbeat movie – certainly not a date movie and definitely not to be watched if your relationship is teetering on the brink.
It’s probably best watched by guys who are obsessing over unsuitable women – but only if they’re open-minded enough to see themselves from the outside.