With celebrity (Tiger Woods’ legion of short-term admirers) and public figures’ (Adam Giambrone’s semantic-laden rationalization of simultaneous lovers—“No, I’m not married, my live-in partner is just for political show …”) indiscretions grabbing the headlines and destroying careers, reputations and families, it’s instructive to view director/co-writer (along with Ric Menello) James Gray’s take on the effects of private infidelity.
In their scenario, beautiful blonde Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow crafts a most sensitive portrayal) is the willing mistress of Ronald (Elias Koteas) who keeps the legal secretary in a readily-accessible apartment when he’s not being her boss at the same law firm. He’s married—of course—so is not always at hand when it’s Michelle’s turn to need someone—notably an unexpected miscarriage.
Perhaps a tad too conveniently, her knight in bipolar armour (yet a further complication to just trying to get along in a world that scorns the “different” amongst us) is the befuddled Leonard (played by Joaquin Phoenix whose nuanced performance almost singlehandedly keeps the film on track). Living at home with his good-hearted parents (Moni Moshonov the ever-generous host, Reuben, while Isabella Rossellini infuses Ruth with a wonderfully understated display of unshakeable love that must give hope to longstanding couples-with-children everywhere), Leonard licks his wounds after a failed engagement (their kids would be at risk for the troubling disorder) and suicide attempts. The metaphor of the family business being dry cleaning works on many levels from taking care of dirty laundry through well-kept clothes masking their owner’s inner-selves to suffocation from the seemingly innocent wrapping yet another possibility for early retirement from the job of life.
Leonard’s well-intentioned folks, using the completely believable guise of dinner with the Cohens (in the same business; merger to save both is not out of the question for the Brooklyn entrepreneurs)naturally include their daughter Sandra (ideally given by Vinessa Shaw who masters the patience of Job in her own desperate world). She is the surprise guest who soon becomes Leonard’s favourite dessert.
Now there are two. The close proximity of Michelle (yes, he has a room with her view) leads to exciting nightlife, but the elephant in the house (competing with Ronald and his superior cash flow) finally causes Leonard to bed Sandra and break off his friendship-with-dancing privileges with his sultry neighbour.
Naturally, complications arise which drive the anxious man back to the alluring temptress: plans are made to start afresh on the West coast until a fateful New Year’s Eve brings everything to a head.
The film’s early promise is largely fulfilled with only a couple of scenes (Ronald’s apology to his concubine made so close to his rival that he’d have to blind, deaf and have a severe head cold not to cotton on) that weaken the power of its thematic intent. Still, in a world filled with deceit, duplicity and deliberate cheating, its cautionary tone just might prevent a few on the edge-of-dalliance from taking the self-serving plunge into the arena where the sexual grass always seems greener from afar. JWR