Two Lovers opens Friday in select theaters

Imagine if, in Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart had been caught by the neighbors he was spying on. Now imagine that the neighbors liked it. In a way, it would become James Gray’s self-conscious curiosity Two Lovers.

In Gray’s film, when the central character looks out his bedroom window to take photos of a neighbor across the way, she doesn’t call the cops or close the curtains, but invites him to go clubbing. I’m not sure what this film, a clinical study of absurd behavior, wants me to think of this exchange, but I’m hooked by anything that makes the complex relationship between audience and protagonist in Hitchcock’s masterwork look simple by comparison.

Any cursory description of the plot might make Two Lovers sound more familiar than it is. It follows the romantic missteps of Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix)a perhaps suicidal, probably bipolar Brooklyn boy from Brighton Beach. His parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov, both exuding eerie calm) try to set Leonard up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a nice Jewish girl. While Leonard entertains the idea of a relationship with Sandra, he only has eyes for Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), his troubled, sniveling blonde wisp of a neighbor.

From its first frames to its downbeat denouement, this is the most fatalistic film I’ve ever seen that offers its protagonist two beautiful women to choose between. Indeed, it’s important that Shaw, who delivers a studious performance, is not a homely virgin but is attractive, even sexysomeone whom plenty of guys want to date. The fact that Leonard is blind to her beauty (implied reasons abound in the film) is what makes this story tragic.

The choice that Leonard should be making is clear, and Two Lovers is one hundred minutes of watching him not make it. What I love about Gray’s movie is that it doesn’t just short-circuit emotional connection, it explodes the very concept, leaving a fascinating film in the aftermath. Gray and his co-writer, Ric Menello, strip away familiar signposts that define an intended emotional response for the audience. The idea of likeability evaporates within the first few scenes (I don’t want to give anything away), and for this reason what we’re left with islike Rear Windowmostly a study in watching the way people behave. But every time I was ready to give up on Leonard, Phoenix hits such a genuine moment or does something so laugh out loud funny that I am in a perpetual state of reassessment throughout the movie. What’s so great is that for most of the film I have no idea what Gray wants me to think of what’s happeningit’s an exhilarating bottomless freefall.

“I don’t read very much,” Michelle tells Leonard right away. She’s a creamy drink-slurping simpleton whofor the sake of the narrativehas to get dumber and dumber so that Leonard can make more and more mistakes. She is an inelegantly drawn character.

The characterization of Michelle is a problem, but it suits the movie. Anything more delicate just doesn’t belong in a James Gray picture. Gray has directed four films now, among them 2006’s stern police drama We Own the Night, my favorite of his films, and one of my favorite American films this decade. There he proved himself a master of the chase scene, but with Two Lovers he has shifted gears, and it feels like a deliberate act.

But that makes senseGray is a deliberate filmmaker. He doesn’t relay information; he crams it into every frame. Michelle is already visually out of place in Leonard’s apartment before she starts commenting on the Jewish tchotchkes that his parents display. “What is that, Yiddish?” she asks. Similarly, Gray doesn’t develop relationships between characters; he puts them in a rubric of dynamicsLeonard is in love with Michelle, who says he’s like a brother and is dating a man who tells Leonard he reminds him of his sonand has them hash it out. In Two Lovers, people don’t change. They squirm.

Watching them wriggle has a special kind of nerve-racking pleasure. Gray’s last two films were aided by tight-jawed, naturalistic performances from Joaquin Phoenix, a tough guy who wears the chinks in his armor like medals. But in Two Lovers Phoenix does more than complement Gray’s movie, he elevates it into another realm, a virtuosic portrait of vulnerability that becomes not only the subject of the movie, but an embodiment of its ideas. He can work two reactions into one moment, often beginning a sentence before restarting it in a different, more confident way, conveying as much in half a syllable as Gray and cinematographer Joaquín Baca-Asay do in their wide shots of the boardwalks and beaches of Brighton.

Watching Two Lovers, I’m reminded of another film featuring Paltrow, The Royal Tenenbaums, in which Owen Wilson’s character asks her about her review of his latest book, wondering why she would go out of her way to specifically mention that he is not a genius. James Gray’s style, especially in Two Lovers, provides something of an answer. Making his fourth film, Gray still directs like a prodigy with promiseefficient, charged, sometimes with an overbearing directorial hand that stifles the energy of the scene. Perhaps he would really like to be a genius. But he isn’t, and his films are the better for it. There is no fun in perfection, and a genius isn’t an artist, he’s a demigod. Gray doesn’t have to be a geniushe’s a damn fine director, and that’s plenty.