If Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a lovelorn bachelor in James Gray's Two Lovers, were 12 years old, the movie might make a touching romantic drama for tweens. Not that adults don't regress madly under the pressure of hopeless infatuation. But though Two Lovers is based on a Dostoevsky story, Gray's lack of interpretive distance from his subject, coupled with extreme overacting from his lead actor, results in melodrama that sits up and begs to be farce. As Leonard, a jilted thirtysomething who's moved back in with his Brighton Beach Jewish parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov), Phoenix lays on the pimply-youth body language so thick that it wouldn't be surprising to see him twitch at his underpants. This shambling mama's boy quickly becomes irresistible to two luscious beauties from opposite ends of his comfort zone: nice Jewish girl Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) and shiksa Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a neurotic tease who summons him to nocturnal rooftop summits about the uneven progress of her affair with a married man. What follows is a clumsy stab at Vertigo laced with bits of Marty. What you make of Leonard's behavior at the end of Two Lovers may depend on whether you read It's a Wonderful Life as the uplifting tale of a depressive redeemed from suicide, or the tragedy of a man who gave up adventure for a domestic cocoon.
Gwyneth plays the bad girl.
Opens at Seven Gables, Fri., Feb. 27. Rated R. 108 minutes.