There are some movies that begin with strong, robust characters, that move along with confidence, soothing us into thinking they’re headed in the right direction. Then suddenly they introduce a character or two who simply don’t belong, who operate at a level so beneath the central plane of drama that we are put off by them.
Love Is Strange gives us not one, not two, but four such characters, and does a masterful job of concealing their betrayal. Had I grown up in a dysfunctional family, surrounded by obnoxious children, I might not have noticed so much. But with the convictions I hold about good behaviour and respect for others, I feel the characters in Love Is Strange have done the movie a disservice.
This is tragic, because the story director and co-writer Ira Sachs tells about love and commitment in the face of adversity is poignant. We meet Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), an elderly gay couple living in New York. They’ve been together 39 years and only now have been allowed to get officially married.
Then, in a scene that’s moving but not really probable today under the leadership of Pope Francis, George is asked to retire from being the head choir master of the local Catholic high school. “You’ve known me twelve years”, George informs the principal. “I’ve taught these kids since they were little. They know me. Their parents know me. They’ve been to my house. They’ve played my piano. You knew that Ben and I were living together”.
Without a job, and with Ben’s pension proving futile, the couple is forced to sell their apartment. They gather all the necessary spectators to make this announcement: Their gay neighbours, who are both cops but look more like synchronised strippers; Ben’s nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei); and a young woman named Mindy (Christina Kirk), whose relation to the central couple is unknown to me.
Ben moves in with Elliot and Kate, whose son Joey (Charlie Tahan) loves to skate and hang out with his Russian friend Vlad (Eric Tabach). Whether Joey and Vlad are also gay is renounced by the film, but I’m not convinced. George bunks with the gay neighbours. This, of course, is all temporary, Ben and George assure their hosts. Indeed, George spends a lot of time searching for new rentals and arguing with realtors over the modest profit earned from the sale of their apartment.
Ira Sachs and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias have structured Ben and George very well. They are easy to sympathise with and care for. George is facing the brunt of society’s preferred stance on homosexuality, while Ben struggles to get back into his painting and find his place within the nucleus of his nephew’s household. Both Molina and Lithgow flow with the narrative, never stepping ahead or behind it. They make a charming, romantic, believable gay couple that sometimes quarrels, sometimes laughs, but always loves. They know they are living on borrowed time, in borrowed houses, and they don’t like it.
Why then do Sachs and Zacharias see it fit to poison the vibes with characters like Joey, his mother Kate, and the gay coppers? Marisa Tomei is a lovely person, who often plays her characters with emotions at the surface, but surely Kate is above complaining about Uncle Ben moving in temporarily? Can she not just tell him to be quiet while she tries to write her novel, or simply adjourn to a library? Does she have to ridicule him in front of his nephew? Does she not have the patience to endure a week or so of interrupted domestic affairs?
And what of the stripper twins? They might be very nice people, but why offer to house George when all they’re going to do is turn their apartment into a sweaty, pulsating night club? Don’t considerate hosts run such decisions by their stay-in guests first, or at least send out a warning?
Lastly, there is Joey, the latest poster boy for Hollywood’s Abhorrent Teenager campaign. I dunno. Maybe I’m reading his character all wrong, but what happened to the well-behaved, polite teens, who knew how to talk to their elders and treat them with respect? Kate and Elliot are decent parents. They’re around. They care. What has made Joey so hostile? Why do kids get away with such despicable behaviour these days? His position places him squarely in sight for the film’s closing shot, which is all at once contrived and meaningless, given the kind of character it is trying to salvage.
There is so much to embrace in Ben and George, so much love, that the interference of the supporting players casts a grim shadow over them. This could easily have been a lighter, more optimistic story about relationships, and people helping one another willingly. Instead, Love Is Strange is good most of the time, and utterly frustrating the rest.
Best Moment | Whenever Ben and George are together. George’s firing from the high school is a great moment too.
Worst Moment | Every scene with Joey.