Friday, September 26, 2014

Love Is Strange: Poignant glimpse of family values

Love Is Strange (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, and rather harshly, for occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.26.14

As first-world challenges go, few can be more heartbreaking than the turmoil sometimes created by our nobler instincts.

On the morning of their official nuptials, George (Alfred Molina, left) assures Ben (John
Lithgow) that yes, they will make it to the appointed place on time ... even if they're not
able to hail a taxi.
We like to believe that we’re capable of helping people — particularly friends and family members — much the way we’d hope to be helped, under similar circumstances. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that benevolence generally extends only so far, and no farther ... and then most people are too polite to confront what has become an intolerable situation.

And so the kettle bubbles, until it boils over: the initial generous act inevitably overwhelmed by hurtful confrontations that cannot be taken back, leaving bruised feelings all around.

Put simply, and to quote a telling line from Ira Sachs’ painfully intimate new film, “When you live with people, you know them better than you care to.”

The speaker is Ben (John Lithgow), whose life has taken a disappointing turn: such a letdown, from the radiant happiness he enjoyed only a few weeks earlier.

Sachs and co-scripter Mauricio Zacharias open Love Is Strange on a triumphant event: After having lived together for 39 years, Ben and George (Alfred Molina) joyfully tie the knot, thanks to New York’s new marriage laws. The morning of, the two men are a study in contrast: Ben, artistic and nervous, fusses over every detail; George, practical and calm, knows that all will be well.

They share both the service and subsequent celebratory party with close friends and family: Ben’s nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan); Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez), the gay New York cops who live together downstairs; and numerous other well-wishers.

Kate makes a truly charming, heartfelt speech: brimming with love.

The elation doesn’t last long.

Ben doesn’t really have a job; he dabbles at painting. George, the primary breadwinner, teaches private music lessons but earns the bulk of their income from his longtime job as choir master at a local Catholic school. Unfortunately, although all concerned have known and tolerated George’s sexual orientation during his entire 12-year stint at this school, the marriage is an “official” act that cannot be condoned by the Catholic hierarchy.

George is summarily dismissed. Absent that income, he and Ben no longer can afford their apartment, nor — thanks to New York’s relentless real estate market — can they find another place to live. They reluctantly call a family meeting and present this news, hoping for the group to offer a stopgap, if not a solution.

The resulting silence, as the various implications settle, is merely the first of this film’s many gut-wrenching moments.

We admire some movies for their persuasive verisimilitude: for the familiar premise — there, but for the grace of God, go I — and the quietly powerful performances that anchor the drama. But the process of watching such films — feeling slightly ashamed, as if we’ve become voyeurs during a family crisis — isn’t necessarily something we’re inclined to recommend capriciously to just anybody.

At the same time, we cannot help being impressed by the emotional complexity conveyed so convincingly, and the gentle lessons to be learned along the way.

As a director, Sachs likes the economy of holding on a scene, and then cutting away to suggest the passage of time; he avoids explanatory exposition, trusting us to fill in the gaps. Thus, when next we see Ben and George, they’ve been separated: The former now lives with Elliot and Kate, and shares a bunk bed in Joey’s room; George, in turn, has become a house guest with Ted and Roberto.

More to the point, Ben and George now are a lengthy subway journey away. Their new bonds of marriage notwithstanding, they’ve been cruelly separated.

Lithgow and Molina are fabulous in the starring roles, and they’re well supported by Tomei and young Tahan. Lithgow is particularly compelling, delivering another powerful performance on par with the older man sliding into dementia, in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. (Indeed, Lithgow was by far the best human actor in that film.)

Ben is easily bruised — his wounded expressions, at such times, are enough to make us weep — but he's also maddeningly clueless.

Kate, a writer by profession, works at home and requires silence to concentrate. Watch her rising agitation, hunched over a keyboard, as Ben continually interrupts her one day: Tomei’s glazed eyes, twisted lips and increasingly agitated responses are note-perfect. Kate also prompts one of the film’s genuinely funny lines, when she encourages her uncle-in-law to resume his painting.

“I can’t really do that with other people around, because they distract me,” he says, completely missing the irony. “I need to be alone.”

Tahan also does a fine job with Joey’s discomfort over the situation’s awkwardness: a somewhat withdrawn boy deprived of his much-needed space. Joey is by no means a bad kid, but he suffers the usual eruptions of teenage angst. Tahan works subtle complexity into the way his facial features twist with uncertainty and embarrassment; we can’t help feeling sorry for Joey.

Ben’s presence in this household grows more invasive by the day, notably because of the way he intrudes on Joey’s space, unintentionally interfering with the boy’s friendship with school chum Vlad (Eric Tabach). This apartment isn’t large enough for privacy; as time passes, the “temporary arrangement” threatens to become permanent, and we cringe. By far the worst moments come when Elliot and Kate attempt to discuss personal issues at the dinner table, as if Ben simply isn’t there ... and he tries, in turn, to become invisible.

Agony, agony, agony.

George has no such troubles with Ted and Roberto, who are delighted to have him around. Alas, the problem here is the opposite: Ted and Roberto are superficial party animals, noisily entertaining guests at all hours, against an eardrum-shattering back-beat of contemporary music completely at odds with the Chopin solo piano pieces that soothe George’s soul (and form this film’s gentle score).

We ache over the faux cheerfulness in Molina’s “game face,” as George gracefully endures his new surroundings. Molina’s best moments, however, come when George confronts this story’s various minions of inflexible authority: the Catholic priest (John Cullum, suitably ashamed) who delivers the initial bad news; the accountant who explains why they’re not reaping more cash in hand, from the apartment sale; the city social workers unable to offer much help in the search for new living quarters.

Molina gets considerable mileage from the chill anger that clouds his stoic expression at such moments: George may be too polite to say what’s on his mind, but the message is unmistakable.

And we wonder, as time passes: Where is this story going ... and where will it end?

Sachs’ aforementioned fondness for cinematographer Christos Voudouris’ lingering shots proves crucial at this story’s conclusion, when savvy viewers may anticipate the significance of a particular scene. The film’s thoughtful conclusion also is interesting, in that we suddenly wonder whether this is Joey’s story, as much as — or perhaps even more — than it concerns Ben and George.

Although Sachs and Zacharias carefully sculpt the character details for Ben, George, Kate and Joey, various sidebar elements are overlooked or clumsily presented. I never could figure out what Elliot does for a living, and his long daytime absences and suspicious telephone behavior suggest an extramarital affair ... but apparently not. Similarly, an issue involving Joey and Vlad’s possible involvement in the theft of some school books unfolds but then rather jarringly goes nowhere.

Christina Kirk’s presence as Mindy, Ben’s niece, feels superfluous. Mindy is presented as a New Age-ish flake, and used as little more than an occasionally irritating part of the overall family dynamic. This certainly isn’t Kirk’s fault; she does the best with what she’s given ... but that isn’t much.

Finally, I must confess bewilderment over the film’s title, in terms of trying to determine its significance to the narrative. Love is many things, as revealed in these melancholy 94 minutes ... but “strange” isn’t one of the modifiers that leaps to mind.

That said, these minor hiccups don’t mar the film’s heartfelt candor and touching relationships. Love Is Strange may be difficult to watch at times, but it is, nonetheless, a sweet little drama.

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