When Joaquin Phoenix announced his present "retirement" - not that I doubt his sincerity, but I'll believe it when he's dead and not a moment sooner - the general response was that we lost one of the great actors of his generation, and the loss to cinema would be great and long-felt. A generous reaction, though one that befuddled me just a wee bit, for in looking over his C.V. I can't quite spot the alleged performances that proved him to be any more than a young man who successfully aped some of the lesser tricks of Method acting, and always coming off as somewhat irritating for it.

At any rate, we now come to Phoenix's final motion picture, until the inevitable time that he's handed a screenplay with a role so damn compelling that he simply cannot possibly pass it by: Two Lovers, his third go-round with director James Gray, who is making his fourth feature and the first that isn't a crime drama. I'll confess that I've not seen their prior collaborations, The Yards and We Own the Night, but something in them clearly made Gray trust the actor completely, for in Two Lovers, he basically hands over the reigns to Phoenix - not in the sense that the film rests solely on the performance, which it clearly does not, but in the sense that one frequently sees in the films of Ingmar Bergman, for example, or many director-actor teams that work together often; the emotional impact of the drama is allowed to rest primarily on the effectiveness of the central performance. This is always a brave choice, and it can pay of in spades when everything goes well: Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage is one of the great masterpieces of cinema, and it consists primarily of marathon-length close-ups.

The attentive reader has figured out by now that I don't think everything went well with Two Lovers. Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a man creeping towards middle-age but still living with his parents in a cramped New York apartment, just released from psychiatric treatment after attempting suicide, apparently because of the capricious breaking of his engagement to a lovely young woman. Leonard's folks immediately start pushing him to date Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of an important business contact; he's significantly more interested in Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), the high-strung and occasionally drugged-up shiksa living right across the courtyard from his bedroom.

From there things play out in what could easily have been broad, melodramatic clichés, but are instead subtle and intimate melodramatic clichés. I do not mean this as an insult - I tend to love melodrama - I'm merely pointing out that Two Lovers does not have a particularly innovative plot, although it is a reasonably honest one. And it's refreshing to see fully adult people in the movies, where thirtysomething characters are usually portrayed as high-schoolers with careers, although in this case the adult people are rather willfully acting like lovestruck kids.

But anyway, I've drifted from my point, which is that Gray (who co-wrote, with one Richard Menello) has on his hands a profoundly delicate, subtle and understated romantic drama, and he bets everything on his leading man, as was almost certainly unavoidable: Leonard is present in every single scene, and all of the emotional beats of the story happen to him or because of him. The only way to communicate the story's nuances without sacrificing them to the altar of Leaden Obviousness would necessarily be to put all of the weight on Phoenix, letting his face and his voice and his gestures tell the tale, while Gray worried about making the rest of the film fall into place around him.

Sorry, I don't buy it. Not from the first scene. My problem with Phoenix has always been the same, and in Two Lovers it's as bad as I've ever seen it: in his efforts to fully embody a character, he never simply plays the role, he Acts it out, and that capital "A" on Acts is the key difference. At every moment, Phoenix makes us aware that he is an Actor playing a character, and the mechanics of his Acting are always very present for all the world to see. His numerous physical tics, and his awkward mumbling are very appropriate to Leonard, certainly, but they're also artificial: he constant calls attention to the fact that he is Acting, without ever once coming even close to convincing me that he is that fellow Leonard Kraditor. Everything else falls apart after that.

Paltrow doesn't really help him out much; at some point, I think everyone hits their private level of Gwyneth Paltrow Overload, where she just becomes fucking irritating to watch, and for me that point is years gone. Vinessa Shaw is just about the only performer who manages to make the material seem alive and organic, and I look forward to seeing her in more things. Though it is amusing to watch Isabella Rossellini wrestle with making us believe that she's a New York Jew.

Despite all of this, the film has its moments, most of them thanks to Gray's gift of style. Two Lovers could very easily have become an unbearable, suffocating drag, and for the most part it doesn't, even though nearly every scene takes place in dirty, stuffy interiors. Of particular interest is the small ways in which he violates basic film grammar, unnoticeable except in that it makes the film seem slightly off-kilter, as a way of connecting the audience with Leonard's awkwardness and distressed mental state. Especially in the first quarter or so, there are a good number of slight violations of the sacrosanct 180º Rule, and eyelines tend to be a hair off - particularly the first time that Leonard and Michelle talk across the courtyard, when both of them appear to be looking up, even though she's a floor above him. These would generally count as mistakes, except that Gray makes them quite deliberately, and for the most part to good effect.

That's hardly enough to save the film from being dramatically and emotionally inert, but it's something. Ultimately, Two Lovers strikes me as being too mechanical to really have any kind of proper impact; even the cagey ambiguous ending seems to be part of a Serious Drama By Numbers template than a legitimate attempt to raise interesting questions for the audience to ponder. The best thing I can say is that the film really wants to be a thoughtful film about grown-ups, and even in the indie realm, those don't come by very often. Sad that when they do, they tend to be this mediocre.