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Two Lovers 

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Director James Gray seems to have two muses: New York City and Joaquin Phoenix. Both exude surface charm with an air of danger lurking in the shadows, and both serve Gray well in Two Lovers, the third and strongest installment in his trio of films set in the city and starring the sallow-faced actor. Far less happens, plot-wise, in this plodding drama than in the overstuffed, underwhelming crime thrillers The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night (2007), but the film is better for it. Phoenix plays an awkward head case finding recuperation difficult in the drab digs of his overbearing parents' Brighton Beach apartment. He's quickly (and somewhat miraculously) entangled in a love triangle with two very different women: Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the doting, gift-wrapped daughter of his father's business partner; and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a seemingly unobtainable neighbor with a lust for life. The scenario seems unlikely, but the picture is elevated by Gray's slowly ratcheting tension and Phoenix's simmering instability — a final tour de force, if his threats to quit acting in favor of a rap career have merit. — Noah Bonaparte Pais

Two Lovers (R)

Directed by James Gray

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw

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