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Hip-Hop & Whiteness: Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers

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Last summer, I did a piece called “Beyond The Wackness: Hip-Hop & Whiteness at the Movies”. The focus was predominantly “white” movies that successfully integrated hip-hop music and culture, either as a central plot device or through minor, but telling scenes and details.

James Gray’s Two Lovers is certainly the latter as hip-hop only appears once, when main character Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) does a freestyle and rocks a bunch of throwback dance moves to impress love interest and neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). But Leonard’s “freestyle” will echo through the rest of the movie for any viewer with a working knowledge of hip-hop.

The scene comes a half-hour in, when sad-sack, stuck-at-home Leonard shares a cab with Michelle and her friends, on the way to the club. Leonard, characterized by a mix of inward darkness and flip-of-a-switch, contrived charm, tells the already-giggling girls about a rap routine he and his friends performed in their teens.

Leonard half-recalls the rap, but barely gets past the point where his (presumably) fellow Jewish private-school attending teens would’ve spelled-out his name (L-E-O-N-A-R-D), fumbling through the first few lines, then laughing it off. What could be a scene about a character recalling a goofy teenage anecdote turns into an obsequious hustle, as it feels more like Leonard knows he’s forgotten the routine well before wistfully mentioning it to E-pill popping Michelle.

Out of the cab and into the club, Leonard dances with the nearly-rolling Michelle, punctuating moments of typical rub-your-dick-on-a-chick grinding with killer breakdance moves including a reverse worm, some robot swiped from the Rocksteady crew, and a ton of Freestyle for good measure. In short, dude’s routine is all powermoves.

In these scenes, the film lights-up and the raw energy of Phoenix’s fun but uncomfortable raps and dances makes it wonderfully unreal. It’s almost as if we’re in Leonard’s head here, as the club itself, despite modern dress and cell-phones and all, feels like a flashback to the late 80s–when Leonard probably learned his moves and raps–as there’s a cipher going on and everyone’s bugging out like it’s a Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam video or something. There’s actually a bunch of points in Two Lovers where Gray like, time-travels and plays with modern technology (cell-phones are key to the plot)–the first time we see Leonard’s family home, it feels like it’s 1912 in the Samsa household, but that’s another essay really…

As these like genuinely hallucinatory few minutes played-out though, Joaquin Phoenix’s third-rate Borat/Andy Kaufman schtick from Letterman or on TMZ was hard to forget. This is something that’s plagued all publicity for Gray’s not-what-it-looks-like masterpiece, but especially these scenes, where hip-hop’s part of the movie.

If this “I’m a rapper” thing is somehow real and sincere, then Gray’s even more of a genius for playing off of Phoenix’s instability and bizarre whimsy, and if it’s not, it’s interesting in contrast to the small bits of hip-hop ephemera Gray sprinkles into Two Lovers expertly. Namely, the very same actor brilliantly balancing a hip-hop joke with some character background history and an ugly sense of charm and deceit, running it into a played-out gag about how white people rapping is really funny and silly.

The thing about rap’s inclusion in Two Lovers is, it’s a quiet but key piece of characterization and the kind of thing that doesn’t need to be there, but is there, and is used for more than just goofball laughs about a white dude doing hip-hop, which is the only reason–outside of actual mental illness–for Phoenix’s rapper gimmick.

It’s important to note that Leonard’s rap is some crappy version of a Busy Bee routine, dating his experience with hip-hop significantly. That, coupled with his break-dancing moves, gives you a good sense of the late 80s scene Leonard stumbled into, and given the sense that he had some kind of routine–however terrible–and some genuinely killer dance moves, Leonard at least sorta worked-on and cared about rap at some point.

This tiny sequences gives you a sense of how Leonard spent his teenage years, which given his current situation, gives deeper biography and makes his current, miserable, confused existence more palpable. This hint of a hip-hop past, like his half interest in photography, or the photo of a fiance’ that left him, reach back to a time when Leonard was a little more together but just as wrongly motivated.

In his current state, any and all Leonard’s interests revolve around getting closer to one of the two women in his life. Photography gets him talking to the other girl in his life, Sandra and leads to a chance to get buddy-buddy with her family (always a good look with the ladies), and his old experience with hip-hop becomes a a way to sheepishly charm Michelle. In a scene that’s something of a parallel to the freestyle sequence, Leonard learns that Michelle likes opera and we see Leonard opening one of those sad, like $4.99 “Opera’s Greatest Hits”, and playing it–an embarrassingly sincere (but also manipulative!) attempt to connect with her.

Opera is Leonard’s recent, temporary obsession (at least for a scene, everything Leonard does seems dominated by the fear of permanence, some real “Ode on a Grecian Urn” type shit, which Gray explicitly references in one scene, but that too, is another essay) and if the movie worked-out differently, he’d probably develop into an insincere savant on the subject. Opera, like hip-hip is one more way towards acceptance or opportunity. As it stands, he stops at a Wal-Mart compilation on Opera, another sad, subtle detail that builds up to something greater in Two Lovers. The same way he half-asses his freestyle, or just the very palpable sense that Leonard and Michelle are a little too old for this kind of bizarro romance, Leonard’s opera interest is pathetically superficial.

Gray (and Phoenix) place Leonard in that first generation for whom hip-hop wasn’t underground or was above-ground enough for some young Jewish kid to grab onto, and could easily be a phase of his teenage years (like punk or being a Deadhead). Neither the earlier generations still half-baffled by hip-hop or later generations that were simply born into it by way of Dre or Puffy or Kanye or whoever. Less the “culture” it started out as or would re-develop as a result of it going “pop”, it was just the cool, weird, dope thing for Leonard and his teenage friends with easy access to the subway to be a part of. This kind of, off-the-cuff, not a big deal approach to rap in movie speaks volumes about Leonard’s character and comments on hip-hop’s disposability amongst a certain milieu just as well.

Written by Brandon

March 19th, 2009 at 4:44 am