Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been a couple for 39 years. Now they can get married, so they do, rushing off to the ceremony late. Later, they have a great time at the reception in their small apartment crammed with friends and family, singing, sharing stories, professing their love. George soon learns that the Catholic school where he teaches can no longer look the other way and they fire George. Unable to afford the mortgage on the apartment they have lived in for twelve years, they are forced to move in with family (Ben moves in with his nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows, TV's "Northern Exposure", "Cry Baby"), his wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). George moves in with two gay cops, Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez) who live downstairs from their old apartment. Each has difficulty acclimating to their new environments (Ben is forced to sleep on the bottom bunk, under Joey, and George has difficulty putting up with the younger couple’s partying). And their hosts have trouble getting used to the new houseguests. But more importantly, after spending 39 years together, they are having difficulty living apart, especially since they are now officially married and should be able to live together. They begin to search for a new apartment, something they can afford on George's limited income and Ben's pension.
Written and directed by Ira Sachs, there is a lot to admire about "Love Is Strange". But there are also some very significant problems which mar the film and make the experience far from memorable.
Sachs uses a laconic sense of filmmaking to tell the story of George and Ben. When almost every film at the multiplex appears to have been greatly influenced by Michael Bay and his frantic editing style and filled with as many special effects as possible, Sachs seems to paint each of the scenes in his film and seems intent for us to sit and watch. Occasionally, you begin to see a masterpiece coming to life, but often you are left watching paint dry. Many scenes seem to start after the action has already happened, we are watching the aftermath, or entering the discussion late. This allows us to become a fixture in the apartment, the proverbial fly on the wall, as the characters go about their lives and deal with their problems. Because of this, you feel an intimacy with the people involved that you might not necessarily feel. The scenes also seem to go on for awhile, which gives us the opportunity to become comfortable within the environment and discussion. Both of these creative decisions help to make the film seem leisurely. Because everyone in the film seems to be involved in the arts - Ben is a painter, George teaches piano and choir, Elliot is a film director, Kate is a writer, even Joey is studying French literature, apparently en Francais - Sachs creates a film that one of my friends described as 'classy'. All of this is good. Very good. And unusual, because you don't see a lot of films these days when the filmmaker just sort of stands back and lets the story and characters work their magic.
John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are both very good. They are accomplished actors and have roles they can really sink their teeth into. Thankfully, they are also quite restrained and make Ben and George so believable it almost hurts to watch them living apart. You really believe they have been together for 39 years. These two have a history together, good and bad, and you want to discover more about their rich life together.
Darren Burrows and Marisa Tomei are Elliot and Kate, Ben's nephew and niece. Each is involved in the creative arts and each seems to be a little lost in their own world. Kate, who works from home, struggles with having Ben around all day. Elliot returns home, exhausted every night, seemingly oblivious to his wife's concerns. I really enjoyed the portrayal of their relationship because it is imperfect and this makes it more engaging. They are clearly trying to be a modern couple, talking out all of their problems over a bottle of red wine. But each also seems more comfortable when they slip into more traditional roles and attitudes; Kate arguing about Uncle Ben being around all day, impeding her work, Elliot ready to ground his son without talking to him.
Joey (Charlie Tahan) is at the stage in his life when nothing makes sense and your parents seem like aliens. He begins to hang out with his new friend, Vlad (Erich Tabach). Elliot seems especially perturbed by his son's new friendship, but Ben brings up a good point, causing Elliot to rethink his attitude towards his son. Last year, they were concerned about Joey not having any friends. Now that he has one, they are also concerned. Elliot also seems to be concerned about other things, things that are not explicitly named, things that cause Ben to frown when he realizes what is going on.
The majority of the film seems to center on Ben and his relationship with his nephew and their family. These moments are leisurely, slow, methodical and seem designed to demonstrate the view of life through a senior's eyes.
Once their situation becomes clear and Ben and George are forced to live apart, George becomes a secondary character. He leads the charge for them to find another apartment as we see Ben and George try to navigate the bureaucracy involved with affordable housing in New York. There are a couple of nice moments showing Ben and George on dates. But once they are separated, the narrative concentrates on Ben. We don't spend a lot of time with George, because the time we do spend quickly and completely illustrates life with the younger gay couple.
While this is good for the narrative, because the scenes are so well- done, it makes the film seem lopsided. It is nice to spend so much time with Ben and his niece and nephew, but the point of the film is to see a portrait of the gay couple’s life, so we want to see Ben and George. If they can't be together, we want to spend equal time with them, to get a more full view of their lives.
This is, unfortunately, just the first of a number of problems. There are a number of points, during these long scenes, when the dialogue seems improvised. Maybe this is the result of trying to make the moments seem natural, but there are unnaturally long pauses and moments when everyone seems to be thinking of their next response. Improvisation is difficult to pull off well in a film. Using this technique often does exactly the opposite of what the filmmakers want; instead of making the film seem more natural, it draws attention to the actors and serves to draw the viewer out of the story.
Because the scenes are long and we are dropped into the middle of the action, it takes us a while to catch up. This is a bit disconcerting, but once you pick up that this will be the style of the film, it becomes easier.
Also, there are a number of stories in the film that don't seem to have a direct connection to Ben and George. There is a lengthy subplot about Joey and Vlad reading French literature. Why? WHY? Everything in a film needs to be connected to the main story, in this case, the story of Ben and George. The only connection to Ben and George is that Joey is related to George. The French literature has no other connection that I can discern.
It is also difficult to talk about the last and perhaps most significant problem. It is the most significant because it happens at the end of the film, it is our last image, our last thought, before the film ends and it is what we leave with. It doesn't make a lot of sense, in my opinion, because it shifts the focus of the narrative to a different place, a place we weren't at for most of the film.
"Love Is Strange" deserves some accolades for Sachs' idea of letting the narrative flow naturally, but he seems to get distracted along the way and this makes the film seem less focused than he promises it will be.