I came out of the film “Two Lovers” the other night and didn’t know what to feel. My confusion was only partly related to the film; after two straight weeks of being on deadline (and a frenzied weekend at LimmudLA) I was feeling I might lose my mind and the movie gave me relief. Perhaps I related to the idea of being torn between two worlds, as was the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix. And maybe it was no coincidence that one world was Jewish, filled with family expectations and tribal pressures—and the other was ‘another’ world, free and open and full of risk (made all the more enticing by the luring presence of Gwyneth Paltrow).
The film follows a protagonist that is being compared to the boy-men that lined the pages of Philip Roth novels. Indeed, it is a coming-of-age story (if a belated one) that focuses on the polarizing tension between family expectations and freedom. A.O. Scott writes in the NY Times that, “Like a Roth hero — and just about every other American Jewish male protagonist from Augie March to Jerry Seinfeld — he struggles with the conflicting demands of filial duty and the longing to strike out on his own. He wants to be a good son, but he also wants to live a life of danger, freedom and impulse. Does he stick with his own kind and risk suffocation, or does he risk rootlessness in pursuit of liberation?”
But while the picture’s basic conflict is, as Scott puts it, “the tension between the individual spirit and the ways of the tribe,” it fails to account for another great theme present in the film—mental illness—that at once heightens the tension or was perhaps even caused by it. The characters that are inexplicably drawn to each other—though the nature of their need is different—both suffer from inner turmoil. Phoenix’s character is labeled bipolar and Paltrow is driven to drug addiction for reasons that never become clear. There is something wild, destructive and chemical about their dependency on one another. They are, for each other, like a drug that fuels their illness instead of tempering it or curing it. And the whole time—although the idea of liberation implies choice—you know their road together leads to madness. On the other hand, all the real possibilities of life are at home; where your family arranges your marriage and your job and you are tied to a community.
But illness can destroy that, too. Or make it impossible. I must have walked away confused because the movie tells you that no matter what you choose, you’re never really safe from wanting more.