I tend to bristle whenever a new film gets compared to ''a '70s movie,'' as if an era defined by its rambling unpredictability of form can now be reduced to a mere genre. But James Gray's Two Lovers really is a '70s movie, in the mode of such raw, unfiltered character studies as The Panic in Needle Park, Wanda, and Fat City. You have to watch it with different brain muscles than you’re used to using, because the film has no frills or hooks, no visible ''arcs,'' nothing to grab on to but the fragile humanity of the people on screen. In the case of Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), a surly, stunted fellow living with his Orthodox Jewish parents in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, that humanity is notably vulnerable. Mopey, sallow, and nearly mute (the film opens with his half-hearted suicide attempt), Leonard seems a fatally broken man. But Phoenix, in a feat of acting that keeps revealing new layers, gives him mordant flashes of insight and sex appeal.
As his spirit awakens, so does the movie. Leonard gets set up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the lovely daughter of the man buying out his family's dry-cleaning business, and she's just sensitive enough to take to his morose charm. But he also hears the siren song of another—the sweet, gorgeous, deeply troubled Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has moved into his building. In outline, this love triangle is like something out of early Philip Roth, and it proves far more potent than anything in Gray's earlier, '70s-inflected genre films (We Own the Night, The Yards, and Little Odessa). Paltrow, as she did in Sylvia, makes neurosis luminescent, and Phoenix does something mesmerizing: He plays Leonard as a romantic who is literally engaged, via Michelle, in the adoration of damage. Two Lovers left me hoping that Phoenix, who has announced his retirement from acting, comes to realize that may be the worst decision he has ever made. A–