‘Love Is Strange’ is marred by plot imperfections but buoyed by first-rate performances

Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in "Love Is Strange"
Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in “Love Is Strange”

Love Is Strange
Directed by Ira Sachs
Written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias
USA/France, 2014

So intertwined are Ben (John Lithgow) and George’s (Alfred Molina) lives in Ira Sachs’ new movie Love Is Strange that everything is completely changed by the absence of one another. Uncannily reminiscent of Leo McCarey’s depression era film Make Way for Tomorrow about an elderly couple forced to live apart by bankruptcy, Love Is Strange echoes that story in many ways but adds modern relevance by making the couple gay and the cause of their separation rooted in homophobic discrimination. At the cost of plausibility it lamentably shoots itself in the foot so that it can stay located in Manhattan but through virtue of the talent on hand it is still able to create piteous moments of longing for a hard won happily ever after that’s been unceremoniously cut short. 

Publicly marrying his partner of 39 years brings George’s long career as a music teacher at a Christian school comes to a grinding halt when the school’s religious leaders decree that George’s acknowledgement of his homosexuality puts the moral integrity of the institution at risk. On the heels of celebrating their love, George and Ben are then separated by the loss of his income. Abandoning their home together, Ben goes to live with his nephew’s family and George joins the household of a young gay couple.  Molina and Lithgow are subtly engaging, neither overtly lashing out at their unfortunate circumstances. With no legal grounds to fight back against the privately run school, they suffer in silence and muddle through the hardship as best as they can. The missing link that leaves the film feeling slightly unglued is that these seasoned actors aren’t able to have more than a handful of in-depth scenes together. We skim the surface of their lives before George’s firing and get the gist that they’ve come a long way to regress financially and bear the brunt of such needless pain. The point may be that after so many years together that they know each other so well that there isn’t much left to be said or done that isn’t retreading much happier memories. The movie is content to be less about their relationship and more about how empty and vulnerable they become without one another.

Sach’s previous effort Keep the Lights On was about a deepening gap within a long term relationship and what happens when one partner starts to leave before the other is ready or willing to let go. It is more satisfying because it spotlights intimacy instead of burying it underneath problems of the affluent. It also uses its location of New York City as a reminder of the distance between the couple, not as an overly romanticized locale that the couple seems to value over alternatives that would let them remain together. New York City is part and parcel of their lives but the inordinate focus on living there strangles the storyline and makes them appear to be more in love with staying centrally located than being invested in living with each other. They regard the situation as a temporary solution before they can find more convenient housing in the Big Apple but the strain that they put on inattentive housemates and the stark time alone while indefinitely apart hurts the audience’s connection to their plight. It stands to reason with the information we’re provided that Ben’s pension would afford them a small place nowhere near as glamorous as anything readily available in NYC  but if the separation is so traumatizing and hard on the closeness of their relationship, then why not give up some upper crust niceties so they don’t have to sacrifice being together? It’s monstrous that because of discrimination that they would even have to consider making such a hideous decision but this plot device feels too contrived and materialistically petty to truly add to the emotional weight of the film. The fact that their refusal to move in with a daughter who lives outside the city and is perfectly willing to house them is played for laughs certainly takes away from the sincerity of the notion that they would do anything to stay with one another. A small incident involving the stealing of rare French books by teenage boys from school also doesn’t come across as an essential and leads to a dramatic dead end. This along with the fixation on Manhattan are plot contrivances that can be overlooked but end up bogging down the important work of the film. People in America are indeed fired for their sexuality and the negative impact on their well-being is very real. A better way to approach this could have taken the couple out the world of the well-off and into the realm of other people who have been relegated to the fringes of society by undeserved circumstances. Make Way for Tomorrow follows a middle class couple who have always respected time with loved ones over status. When they can’t see each other, you can feel the loss. Ben and George are sympathetic but emotionally stymied and suffocated by the opulently crowded atmosphere.

The reactions of Ben’s nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and his wife Kate (Marissa Tomei) to his ongoing presence feel realistically prickly as time wears on. His extended family doesn’t appreciate how much of a burden it is to be separated from your significant other or how alone they feel without each other. Elliot’s family are cold toward one another and don’t remotely know how to deal with Ben’s warm attempts at interaction. The couple who take in George are portrayed with a youthful vigor (a scene in which Cheyenne Jackson explains Games of Thrones is particularly telling) that George can no longer connect to. Both George and Ben become minor characters in the full lives of the family and friends who take them in. Molina and Lithgow prove all over again that they are masters of profound, sophisticated movement and interaction. Here they are given little opportunity to truly let loose but break through just enough to for us to know that how hard their efforts are concentrated on paying tribute to men who are victims of bigotry. Despite being sidetracked by its infatuation with New York City and the aloof busyness of the couple’s caretakers, Love Is Strange gives us tender moments of gentle nostalgia and a sad contemplation on the eventualities of ageing. 

– Lane Scarberry

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