Movie Review - Love is Strange

Ira Sachs' previous film was Keep the Lights On. It was about a young, gay male couple dealing with drug addiction. This film is about an older, gay male couple dealing with discrimination in employment and New York realty as well as in general the rigors of age. It provides a fairly good glimpse into the relationship of a gay couple who has been together for nearly 40 years and the nuances that all that implies. With the couple played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, it's more than a glimpse. It's a pretty, realized portrait, thanks solely to their performances. The plot mechanics and the imbalance of focusing on certain characters undermine it, but the performances remain strong.

Alfred Molina plays George, a music teacher at a private, Catholic school. John Lithgow plays Ben, a 71-year-old retiree who is an artist, a painter to be more precise. After nearly 40 years together, the two get married. The state of New York only legalized same-sex marriage in July 2011. Assuming George and Ben have lived in New York their whole lives, getting married was something that they could only recently do. While George wasn't in the closet, his making his relationship with Ben official causes the Catholic school to fire him.

Ben's painting isn't selling. He doesn't even seem to try. George gives private music lessons, but it's not enough to pay their rent. Financial reasons prevent them from being able to stay in their apartment. They have to move and try to find a new, more affordable place, but in the meantime they become homeless.

They ask their friends and family for help. The problem is that their friends and family don't have a lot of extra space to take in both of them, so George and Ben have to separate. George sleeps on the couch of two friends, a younger gay couple in one pocket of New York, whereas Ben sleeps on the bottom bunk of his grandnephew's bedroom in another pocket of New York.

The comedy and drama here comes by way of the close quarters of these older men bumping heads with younger roommates, the awkwardness and annoyances therein. Logistics of cramped spaces is the core problem for both situations, but other social issues come into play in each.

Unfortunately, Sachs makes the film a bit lopsided and comes up a bit short in certain areas. Starting with George's situation, it's clear he gets no privacy and barely any sleep as the gay couple, Ted and Roberto, are constantly up late having loud parties. Sachs, however, never fleshes out these two. Supposedly, both Ted, played by Cheyenne Jackson, and Roberto, played by Manny Perez, are cops, but we get little sense of that. Sachs barely gives them any scenes of dialogue. All we see are them as stereotypical, gay party boys with no regard for George's situation, or any recognition that what happened to him could happen to them.

With Ben's situation, immediately he rubs his grandnephew the wrong way. Charlie Tahan plays Joey, the grandnephew of Ben who has to sleep in the top bunk bed now. Sachs cleverly reverses the dynamics here. Instead of the older gay man losing his privacy or time to oneself, in Ben's situation, he's causing the younger people to lose their privacy or time alone. This is especially true for Joey.

It's also increasingly true for Joey's mother, Kate, played by Marissa Tomei. Kate is a writer who works from home and becomes more and more bothered with Ben's presence. Unlike with Ted and Roberto, Sachs gives Kate and Joey many scenes of dialogue to flesh out their characters. It's more so with Kate. In fact, one scene with Kate leads to a very funny and ironic joke.

Joey's character is more present than anyone else, but even he gets a bit lost here. Joey is only upset at Ben. There's a weird moment of homophobia that he claims isn't, and there's another weird moment of the theft of French books, which one would think odd for a teen in the digital age, but there isn't a true sense of who Joey is beyond generic, rebellious teenager. It makes a moment of pathos at the end hollow and unearned.

Sachs follows Joey in one of several long one-shots and I would have preferred Sachs to focus more in the movie's final moments on George. Molina's performance is the film's shining star. His journey gets a deus ex machina but not a proper payoff.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 33 mins.


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