' ' Cinema Romantico: Love is Strange

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Love is Strange

At their small in-home wedding reception, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) celebrate by jointly occupying a piano bench and belting out “(Baby) You’ve Got What It Takes.” It’s amusing and sweet, and yet so much more. George is the one actually playing the keys, the foundation, harmonizing, as Ben demonstrably takes the lead, turning around and exhorting his family and friends, the irrepressible frontman. It is a moment evocative of the entire 39 year relationship they have at long last been allowed to officially effectuate with vows. And it is a relationship made indelible by the two lead actors, effortlessly expressing the rhythms of two longtime co-habitants and the ensuing emotional trauma that occurs when they are forced apart.

Soon after saying “I do”, George, choir director at a Catholic school, is fired – the church willing to accept their relationship but not their marriage, a sly dig at the arbitrary lines drawn by self-appointed conciliators of right & wrong. This puts the newlyweds in a precarious spot. No longer able to afford their current living quarters and with the search for a New York apartment akin to Percy Fawcett’s quest to find The Lost City of Z, the two men are forced to situationally separate, sort of like a same sex “Make Way For Tomorrow.”

George bunks with a pair of gay cops whose apartment is an endless revolving parade of parties while Ben takes the lower bunk bed of Joey (Charlie Tahan), the introverted high school-aged son of Elliot (Darren Burrows) and Kate (Marisa Tomei). Theoretically speaking, it might have made more sense for these roommate roles to reverse. Decidedly introspective, George finds the ceaseless sociality a drain while Ben’s semi-oblivious forthrightness triggers a myriad of predicaments in his new living quarters. But then Elliot is Ben’s nephew, and family comes first. And the love of the title stems as much from the familial variety as it does from the love shared by Ben and George.

As both writer (with Mauricio Zacharias) and director, Ira Sachs impressively resists merely making this family the convenient device by which to propagate Ben’s eccentricities, rendering them a wholly believable entity with its own problems, illustrating that proximity of those you love can hinder love just as much as separation. Joey is at a delicate moment where he is constantly on the withdrawal, except around Vlad (Eric Tabach), a friend his parents suspect might be too close. Meanwhile Elliot is hardly present, always tied up with work, and Kate struggles to finish her next novel with the Ben’s ceaselessly looming presence.

These are common ingredients but Sachs has virtually no interest in seeing them through to standard payoffs - in fact, he's barely interested in payoffs at all. The biggest piece of plot wrap-up involves George and Ben’s seemingly futile apartment search, resolved on account of an encounter so providential that Ben actually refers to this person who magically appears and grants them a place to live as an “angel.” While this might seem the epitome of screenwriting contrivance, it’s instead indicative of the film’s overall ethos.

The term Love is Strange sounds rote, doesn't it, like something you'd type in on BrainyQuote. But the film never reduces its argument to sloganeering in the manner of its title, it never reinforces the false cinematic polemic that one line, one hug, one montage is a solution. It's more honest than that, yet never cynical, still quixotic.

This is implicitly captured in a shot placing Joey, weeping for reasons not to be revealed, in the right of a stairwell. To his left is a window with a view of the city street below, cars passing, one after another. The camera never moves. It never needs to. What else needs to be shown? To the right is all the pain that life brings. To left is life still going on. And so Joey wipes away his tears and descends the stairs to re-meet what looms outside. Maybe it's just a brave front. But then, aboard his skateboard, he literally rides into a sunset.

Love may be strange, but “Love is Strange” still believes in riding off into the sunset. It still believes in angels.

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