"Two Lovers" is the kind of highbrow movie many actors would consider a great showcase: a small, personal film with a demanding central role opposite an Oscar-winning actress. Joaquin Phoenix, the star of the new drama, sees "Two Lovers" in a very different light -- his swan song.
Phoenix's retirement from acting -- which he insists is neither a joke nor a publicity stunt -- has transformed the film's Friday launch into a circus nearly as surreal as anything staged by Fellini or Cirque du Soleil.
"I didn't think it would get this attention," Phoenix says. "I didn't think anybody would care."
The star of "Walk the Line" and "Gladiator" announced last fall that he was quitting acting to pursue a career in music, saying that "Two Lovers" would be his final turn in front of movie cameras. News of the unusual declaration -- Phoenix is just 34 years old and considered one of the top acting talents of his generation -- is threatening to eclipse the film itself, seriously testing the long-standing adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity.
"I have no idea if it helps or hurts," the film's writer-director, James Gray, said at the end of a recent day of publicity for the film, in which Phoenix was trailed by a documentary film crew under the direction of actor (and Phoenix's brother-in-law) Casey Affleck, who is chronicling Phoenix's career transformation. "But my instinct is it's pretty good for the film," Gray says. "It's a small movie, and it wouldn't have gotten a lot of press otherwise."
It's not just Phoenix's retirement (and, more notably, the media's coverage thereof) that is overshadowing the story of "Two Lovers," Gray's examination of the complicated emotional and romantic life of a middle-aged man struggling with mental illness.
At the same time, "Two Lovers" costar Gwyneth Paltrow is attracting a ton of attention too. But it's not for her increasingly rare film work or even her marriage to Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. Instead, the focus has been on the "Shakespeare in Love" actress' new self-help website ( www.goop.com), and not all of the coverage of her luxurious lifestyle tips has been very kind.
"While it's nice to get the attention and get the film's name out, it's a double-edged sword, because it's not reflective of the film," says Eamonn Bowles, whose Magnolia Pictures is releasing "Two Lovers" in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, while the film already is available through video-on-demand services. "The film is anything but a tabloid diversion. It's a soulful, serious, almost old-school story. And we don't want the tabloid fodder to overwhelm the film."
"Two Lovers," which premiered at last May's Cannes Film Festival, is hardly a lightweight romance: The film opens with Leonard (Phoenix) attempting to commit suicide. Leonard, who has moved back in with his parents following a canceled engagement, is soon entangled in two women's lives.
Michelle (Paltrow) is a Brooklyn neighbor who is having an affair with a married man, while Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is a family acquaintance who is a healthier choice for the emotionally unstable Leonard.
Gray says that he wrote his script with Phoenix (who was in Gray's "The Yards" and "We Own the Night") and Paltrow in mind, and was inspired by the Dostoevsky short story "White Nights," which has been turned into half a dozen other movies.
"I think he's fantastic in the movie," Gray says of Phoenix. "If it's his last movie, I think it would be really sad. He's a wonderfully talented guy, and he has a lot to give the world. But he said over and over again, 'I don't like doing this anymore. I'm tired.' He looked exhausted at the end of the movie. At the end of the process, I saw him quite beaten. I have never met anyone as serious as an artist as him, and he doesn't care what anyone thinks."
That includes the actor's appraisal of his own work. Asked if Phoenix thinks that "Two Lovers" would be a fitting final chapter for this cinematic career, he shrugs, saying that he hasn't watched it. "I don't see the movies I do," Phoenix says. "Why would I?"
Looking more like a hard-living rock star than a matinee idol, Phoenix conducted his interview with matted, disheveled hair, an unruly beard, tattered clothes and dark sunglasses. While some have dismissed his retirement as an Andy Kaufman-style prank, commenting endlessly about his legendary Las Vegas performance, where he lost his balance and toppled off the stage, Phoenix says his switch from multiplex to recording studio is dead serious, a path he began steering toward years ago. Indeed, Phoenix sang all of Johnny Cash's songs in "Walk the Line," for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
"It's something that I have been doing for a while," Phoenix says, lighting up a cigarette and sipping a Snapple. "I don't want to film right now. . . . It's not satisfying."