Monday, August 25, 2014

Love is Strange (***1/2)

Directed by Ira Sachs


Love is Strange is such an understated piece of filmmaking that some may not realize just how powerful it is. The story's protagonists are two upper-middle-aged gay men who've just gotten married, but it is not trying to be progressive or break the mold on serious social issues. It's a very measured document of love, marriage, family and getting older, that has glimmers of social tensions in the background because, well, those kinds of things are always playing back-up to the main spectacle that is the drama of our current lives. It's two stars are Alfred Molina and John Lithgow - both veteran performers known well for their training, their work on the stage and their reliable supporting work in films. Neither have ever had any real chance to carry a movie as its star, and even now with this film, they share that burden together. In a way, that lends heavily toward Love is Strange's balanced, generous ensemble which they lead without an ounce of competition or showmanship. It's a wonderful experience, crafted by director Ira Sachs into one of the most genuine movie experiences of the year.

After nearly forty years of being a loving couple and almost twenty years of living together in the same beautiful Manhattan apartment, painter Ben (Lithgow) and music teacher George (Molina) finally get the chance to make their union official. In a small but warm ceremony, Ben and George get married in front of family and friends, who then all retreat back to the infamous apartment where the couple are lavished with generous compliments from the people who have seen the wonderful commitment that these two men have shown to one another. The scene is a culmination of four decades of brave affection, half of which was no doubt spent in peril during our culture's more intolerant times - though the movie never reflects on that - and the crescendo is a pricey honeymoon spent in Italy. Upon their return, George is confronted by the priest who runs the Catholic school where he teaches the choir. The priest informs George that word of his immoral union to Ben has reached the archdiocese and that because of this, he will be let go from his job of twelve years, effective immediately. With Ben living on pension and George now making money only from private lessons, the newlyweds inform their family of their misfortune and that it will lead to them having to sell their famed apartment. For the time being, they will have to move in with family until George can find a new job and they can find an apartment that's more affordable.

Though Ben has a willing niece, Mindy (Christina Kirk), with enough space living in Poughkeepsie, the two decide that they much rather stay in the city where it will be more convenient to apartment-hunt and for George to find new work. For convenience sake, they split: Ben lives with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), his novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their moody, teenaged son Joey (Charlie Tahan); and George lives with two friends in the apartment below them, a couple of gay cops named Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez). For Ben, staying with a young family proves troublesome, when he's made to feel burdensome due to his perpetual chattiness; and tension builds quickly when he's forced to share a bunk bed with the angsty Joey. For George, staying with Ted and Roberto quickly reveals itself to be more trouble then its worth when the much younger couple displays their tendency to hold nightly gatherings of a dozen people, drinking and playing games. Probably worst of all, Ben and George are forced to live apart for the first time in decades, putting their love through one of its severest hardships. Through it all, though, the men gain new respect for their union, relishing their time together, which now seems more precious than ever.

This is the first film I've ever seen by Ira Sachs, but he's been working consistently since the 90's. Homosexuality seems to be a theme in all his films, but Love is Strange does a good job of being incredibly casual about it. When George is let go from his job because of his sexual orientation, Sachs knows that the audience understands the incredible indecency behind the decision, and doesn't feel the need to reinforce that. George's termination is treated with a sort of "That's life" shrug because Sachs knows that the real issues will be what happens after the job is lost. Unfairness and disappointment is a part of life, whether you're gay or straight, and that tact is very different then what I expect a straight director would have done with this same story. A large majority of the film focuses on the two men's separation after losing the apartment. Lithgow's Ben is 71 years old (in reality, the actor is only 68) and the actor imbues the performance with a measure of not-quite-senility and the kind of lack of awareness that we'd remember from most of our grandparents when they reached advanced age. Ben is the needier of the two, and George is more of the caretaker. With the young friends, George hides passive-agressively in nooks and crannies, waiting for all of the people to leave so he can sleep on the couch. It takes quite a lot of dignity to accept the lack of awareness that Roberto and Ted show George, but that's exactly what he does.

The film puts a lot of focus on the young Joey, whose advanced intelligence proves to alienate him among his peers. He has one friend, an older Russian kid named Vlad (Eric Tabach), who seems like too much of a troublemaker for Joey. When Ben uses Vlad to pose for his latest painting, Joey becomes incensed. At Joey's age, he's going to be at his most self-involved and the least responsive to Ben and George's plight. His teenage rage is something Ben often understands, but it creates a domino effect throughout the house as Kate is forced to clean up the messes while Elliot is never home. The marriage of Kate and Elliot is a great foil to Ben and George's. Ben and George have a lifetime of misdeeds and inflicted pain that has massaged itself into comfortable life together, while Kate and Elliot's marriage is stable but filled with mistrust and uncertainty. The meeting of two creative minds can be tricky, especially with a son who has a nasty temper. The way Love is Strange juggles all of these narratives together is not always perfect. Some of the storylines leave the audience hanging and others toil on longer than need be, but Sachs knows that they are just the background music for Ben and George's troubles. Love, indeed, is a very strange thing; what it does to people and what it makes people do. Few films have ever done a better job at showing that than this one.

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