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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review: Love is Strange (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Ira Sachs
Starring: Alfred Molina, John Lithgow

The "love" in Love is Strange - a gentle and carefully crafted character study from Ira Sachs - takes several forms. It's the romantic love between two people committed to each other, the love one feels for those they're related to, love between friends, and the idea of love one might have for someone they've never properly met. The "strange" comes into play with respect to the way that some loves can be undercut by proximity and familiarity while others can endure despite distance. A beautifully observed little character movie, Love is Strange is one of 2014's unassuming little gems, the sort of film that seems to have a small impact at first, but grows the longer that you sit with it after the fact.

Love is Strange opens with the wedding of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), partners for nearly 40 years and the center of a wide group of friends and family for whom they have long been the solid, ideal couple. Shortly after the wedding, however, things begin to come apart when George, a music teacher at a Catholic school, loses his job as a result of the archdiocese having gotten wind of the marriage. Though he has always been open about his relationship with Ben, and though the administrators of the school have no issue with the marriage, their hands are ultimately tied by the orders they receive from a higher institutional level. With George unemployed, and Ben having never earned much income from his work as a painter, the couple are forced to sell their apartment and look to their friends and family for assistance. Only Ben's niece is in a position to take them both in, but as she lives in Poughkeepsie the situation would not be ideal as it would make it difficult for George to find another job and for George and Ben to get around as neither of them drive. So Ben and George instead stay in New York but in different places, George staying with neighbors Ted and Roberto (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), and Ben staying with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), Elliot's wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their teenage son, Joey (Charie Tahan).

The physical distance alone is hard for Ben and George to cope with, but that stress is exacerbated by the necessity of having to live with other people and adjust to their habits and lifestyles. Living on the couch of their much younger friends, who are seemingly always having parties, quickly begins to push George to the brink of despair, while Ben just as quickly begins to wear out his welcome with his nephew's family, his steady stream of patter a distraction to Kate, a writer accustomed to having time alone at home to write, and his mere presence an invasion of Joey's fragile sense of privacy. Ben's disruption of their routines seems to bring long simmering tensions up to the surface, causing deep discord and making a scapegoat of Ben, who becomes the focal point of both Kate and Joey's anger and irritation. To make matters worse, while the search for a new home continues, Ben's health rapidly begins to deteriorate, making it all the more urgent for him and George to find a more permanent solution to their troubles.

Though it contains key and fairly obvious differences, Love is Strange bears a passing resemblance to Leo McCarey's 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow, about an elderly husband and wife hit hard by the Depression and forced to go their separate ways after their home is foreclosed on. Both films are about couples with strong relationships who are parted not of their own choice, but from the fact that their position in society makes them particularly vulnerable during periods of economic downturn, and in both the two members of each couple become increasingly aware of themselves as unwanted guests in the homes of the people who ought to have the most compassion for them but whose patience almost immediately becomes frayed. The basic story that the two films tell is a sad one, one informed by the brutal reality of how thin the margin of economic comfort and self-sufficiency can be, and by the darker sides of human nature. At the same time, however, Love is Strange is also a fairly sweet movie, one in which the relationship between George and Ben seems fully realized and comfortable, and in which time is found to explore the dynamics of the relationship itself rather than focus solely on the pain and stress experienced by the pair in being separated.

Lithgow and Molina, tremendous actors each, turn in finely wrought performances that perfectly capture the struggles that each man is undergoing by himself and that the two are undergoing together, as well as the small nuances that illuminate the relationship and the way that the power dynamics shift and change with circumstance (for example, in the opening scene Ben putters around the apartment looking for something he's misplaced and George mutters, "Not today," suggesting that this is a habitual occurrence and he's the one who acts as the caretaker to his flakier partner, but later in the film it's George who breaks down as a result of the separation and Ben who takes the role as the calming, comforting figure). They are surrounded by a solid supporting cast playing characters who love Ben and George, but find their affection for them undercut by the strain of hospitality, people who are not villains but who perhaps overestimated the limits of their generosity. Love is Strange is a slow moving film, but it's a wonderfully crafted little character drama that digs deep and treats all of its characters like the complex human beings they ought to be.

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