Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Love is Strange

LOVE IS STRANGE (Ira Sachs, 2014)

After being together for thirty-nine years the wedding of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) is the happiest moment of their lives, but the big day also leads to the hardship that follows in LOVE IS STRANGE. Ben teaches music at a Catholic school. While his relationship with George has not been a secret, news and photos of their marriage catch the attention of the archdiocese. George is considered to be in violation of the Christian witness statement he signed as terms of employment, so just like that he’s terminated from his job.

George intends to teach private lessons and look for other work, but for now his income and Ben’s pension are not sufficient to afford their Manhattan apartment. They must sell their place and find family and friends who will take them in during the transition. Ben’s niece Mindy (Christina Kirk) has ample space for them in Poughkeepsie, but their lives are oriented around New York City. Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) agrees to house his uncle Ben, although the 71-year-old painter must share a bunk bed with his great-nephew Joey (Charlie Tahan). George ends up staying on a couch with their police officer friends Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Cheyenne Jackson).

Naturally, the arrangements are less than ideal. Ben often interrupts Elliot’s wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) while she tries to work from home. Joey acts as if having Ben around so much is cramping his style. George is staying with a couple whose frequent entertaining and socializing are at odds with his more introverted personality.

The set-up for LOVE IS STRANGE makes it sound as though it will be a message movie about the lack of legal protections for gay men and women in the workplace. Instead the instigating event points toward a study of the challenges in living with those you love, especially when being an outsider in a household also makes things difficult for the hosts. Ben and George try not to be nuisances, nor do they complain about the concessions they’re making, yet they can’t help but notice that they don’t fit in the places they’ve been forced into. They shoulder the burden as best they can and try to see each other when too few opportunities allow.

Frustration touches everyone in LOVE IS STRANGE, but this gentle film resists large emotional outbursts. The blame for tension in these homes points both ways, and director and co-writer Ira Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias spot the humor in the little things people do to annoy one another. Sachs watches how routine things in one place can set off those unaccustomed to them in their domain. What’s normal and implicitly accepted in one living space can drive others crazy, particularly within a family striving to be polite under the circumstances. As George tells a piano student imposing her ideas on a Chopin piece, you can’t make your own rhythm. Everybody is trying to keep in time in LOVE IS STRANGE, but inevitably not all can maintain a beat that isn’t familiar.

Restraint marks the performances in this close-knit circle of family and friends. Molina and Lithgow do tender work as longtime companions so at ease in their home together and so ill-fitting in their replacement environments. They display dignity in a situation that takes swipes at it. When Ben and George get a night on the town, it’s as though the film relaxes with them. They’re free to be themselves without disrupting their hosts. The love they’ve shared for almost four decades has faced interference while they try to be polite guests, but this beautiful scene allows them to express the relief of fully being who they are together. 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7 describes love as patient and kind, among other qualities. Strange isn’t one of those listed characteristics, yet seeing the others demonstrated in this film reveals that something oddly wonderful exists when people try to rise up to such an example.

Grade: B

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