Review by Michael Edwards
JOAQUIN Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw star in this Brooklyn romance story about manic depressive Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix) whose lonely life working in his father’s dry cleaning business and personal problems from the past have led him to several suicide attempts.
Things look like they might change when his father sets him up with Sandra Cohen (Shaw), daughter of a business associate of Leonard’s father. She is kind and understanding and generally very good for him.
However, things are complicated by the appearance of Michelle Rausche (Paltrow), a vivacious young girl in the midst of an affair with a married man. Can Leonard make the right decision and make himself happy? This question is at the heart of the film.
Critically-acclaimed writer/director James Gray is known for this kind of existential emotional drama thanks to his last effort We Own The Night. The problem this time is that he ships out all of the action of his last feature and replaces it primarily with text messaging and phone calls.
Whilst this does go some way to representing the isolation of Leonard, which is to some extent implied to be symptomatic of contemporary society, it also makes for some mundane scenes.
The lack of meaningful interaction could be saved if each character is given a strong, layered personality, but Gray seems to have failed here too.
Leonard’s manic depression is signified simply by an early attempted suicide scene and his proclaimed mania for photography (evidenced by a box of photographs and his role as official photographer at Sandra’s brother’s Bar Mitzvah), and the basic premise of the plot itself.
Likewise, Sandra’s warm hearted empathy is represented purely by the absence of any negative response to Leonard’s apparent aloofness and Michelle’s joie de vivre and general impulsiveness is illustrated by the hackneyed stereotypes of drug use and extra-marital affairs.
The worst thing about the shallow veneer applied to these ostensibly deep themes though are the pitifully bland declarations made by characters with no emotional investment or shared experience to back them up.
After just a week Michelle announces that Leonard is ‘like a brother’ to her, and even invites him to dine with her and the married man she is seeing to find out if it can work.
Sandra falls in love with Leonard and professes to understand him, despite having no reason to think she can. And Leonard talks of love when he seems too confused to even identify hunger when he felt it.
The power invested in a few well shot scenes by great performances from these highly rated actors will doubtlessly win this film wide acclaim. Bolstered by real life troubles of the unstable Mr Phoenix, this may even translate into real success at the box office.
Nonetheless, there is no way that this flippant and poorly scripted film can carve a lasting place in the conscious of the cinema-going public as anything other than a good example of self-indulgent emo movies.
Running time: 110mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: August 10, 2009