First Hit: A subtle yet powerful film which slowly evolved to depict the complications of a man learning how and whom to love.
Joaquin Phoenix, playing Leonard, is living at home. He works at the family dry cleaners. He is full of despair starting with the initial scene and moves between this state of mind and one of an extroverted “man about town” in others.
What prompts the bursts of openness is Gwyneth Paltrow who plays Michelle an addicted woman hung up on a married man. He thinks he can help her, save her. But doesn’t see that she really can only see him as a friend, someone to confide in.
On the other hand his father’s friend wants to buy the family business and it will affect Leonard’s future. This family friend also has a daughter named Sandra (played by Vinessa Shaw) who wants to meet Leonard. From their first meeting there is a connection between them, however the fireworks he has for Michelle out shines his honest affection for Sandra.
The film lets the difficulties of these two competing relationships play out realistically and with honesty. Leonard’s family continues to push Leonard in different directions with his father’s desire for success and his mother’s desire for his happiness. It ends up being a beautifully filmed play of realism.
James Gray directed this film with the full unfolding of the story as one usually sees in French films. There is no hurry to get to the end and each scene has a reason and fills out the story. Joaquin Phoenix gives a very strong performance and one actually senses the difficulties of having a bi-polar condition without being told this is his problem. You “get it” through the performance. Paltrow is dead on perfect as Michelle. She gives a very powerful performance of an addicted, to drugs and dream, woman who is looking to be saved. Shaw is beautiful and it was hard for me to believe no one wanted her as she expressed to Leonard early on, but as the story unfolded I realized her wanting to be a caretaker would turn off some men but was perfect for Leonard.
Overall: This is a strong film and is filled with great performances and the story unfolds with clear direction.