Monday, September 1, 2014

Review: Love is Strange

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Ira Sachs' "Love is Strange" is a funny, sweet, sad and wonderfully acted picture that is among the best of the filmmaker's movies about relationships faced with obstacles, including "Married Life," "Keep the Lights On" and "Forty Shades of Blue."

His latest is pretty straightforward in terms of narrative - that is, we observe the lives of a couple and their group of friends during a particularly challenging period, but Sachs also manages to leave enough ambiguity in the story to keep us compelled and he sort of daringly refuses to answer a few questions about several characters that might leave some audience members unsatisfied. But I admire the way he leaves some of the story to our imaginations.

At the beginning of the picture, a couple of 40 years - music teacher George (Alfred Molina) and painter Ben (John Lithgow) - are getting married following New York's ruling in favor of marriage equality. But an act of bigotry wreaks havoc on their lives as the Catholic school where George works fires him, arguing that by making his relationship public (in other words, by marrying), he has violated the school's contract. One of the better screenwriting moments occurs when the man who fires George then asks him to pray with him - and George gives just about as good an answer as you could expect of anyone.

George is out of work and Ben lives on a pension, making it impossible for them to continue being able to afford their condo, so they gather their friends and relatives to ask if they could crash with any of them for a while. One relative proposes their staying at her home in Poughkeepsie, but George's private lessons and Ben's gallery shows make that impossible.

So, Ben ends up staying with his favorite nephew, Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and his wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), whose relationship with Ben increasingly becomes strained as he prevents her from writing her novel by chattering to her. Also, Elliot and Kate have a teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), who may or may not be having a romantic relationship with a Russian boy named Vlad (Eric Tabach).

George ends up crashing on the couch of a gay couple with whom he and Ben are friends. The two men, both of whom are cops, are kind to George, but are also significantly younger and their constant parties at the apartment often prove to be too much for the music teacher.

One of the unique aspects of the film is that it primarily focuses on the relationships between George and his housemates and Ben and his family, rather than just on the two protagonists. There never appears to be much of a possibility of their time spent apart causing a rift in their own relationship. "Love is Strange" is a film about how people with conflicting personalities must deal with one another when forced to live in close quarters.

And as I mentioned before, there are a few shades of ambiguity here. What's the deal with Joey and Vlad? And is Joey being sincere when he tells his uncle about a girl on whom he has a crush? Why do Elliot and Kate appear to be so tense around one another?

At its core, "Love is Strange" is a character piece - and one in which virtually all the characters are fully realized. By the end of the picture, we feel as if we've gotten to know these people. The entire cast is great, but Molina and Lithgow are the heart and soul of the movie. Both of them are terrific. And the film's title is a funny thing - it could likely apply to more than one of the film's many relationships.

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