Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Love is Strange (2014)

Film: Love is Strange (2014)
Stars: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Charlie Tahan, Cheyenne Jackson
Director: Ira Sachs
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

Love is Strange was not a movie that was well-marketed, in my opinion.  For starters, the lead actors are not really great insurance policies heading into a movie.  John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have both made a name for themselves, and are terrific stage and television actors, but when it comes to the movies I've always felt there was a bit of a hamminess that never quite hit the subtlety of the cinema.  The trailers also made this movie look more about a tale of two older gay men trying to fit into a younger generation's home when in reality it was so much more than that-this film is about the strangeness of getting older, the uncertainty that comes with your final years and what direction they will head, and most importantly how deeply vulnerable we are to the few people in the world we love and whom we hope love us back unconditionally.  It's a wonderful, complicated movie and definitely worth everyone's time, particularly if you got scared off by the trailers.

(Spoilers Ahead) My brother texted me this, and it was one of the chief thoughts I had as well while I was leaving the theater, but the gay aspect, so central to the trailers (perhaps to get gay audiences in the seats?), is really incidental to the story, and is actually a pretty cool form of color-blind casting.  With the exception of the reason for their needing to move (Alfred Molina's George is fired by the archdiocese when he marries his longtime partner, John Lithgow's Ben), there's no real reason for the two to be gay, but it's a nice touch to have in a story, and in a cinema that seems less and less likely to invest in gay-themed pictures in wider-release movies, I'll definitely take it.

No, the film itself is actually all about the complications with getting older, and in particular with being older when you have no children.  When George is fired, the two men cannot maintain their current apartment and don't have enough saved to start a life in a smaller apartment while George waits for another job.  It's a petrifying situation that anyone who doesn't have a nest egg tucked away the size of Fort Knox worries about, and both men have to have an absolutely humiliating moment where they ask their friends and family if they can move in together.

From this point on, we see George and Ben struggle living apart and with a group of people where they have different routines and cadences.  Ben, in particular, gets treated to the domestic life of his nephew and his wife Kate (Tomei, absolutely brilliant as always), thrown off by having no one to talk to and being in cramped quarters with their moody teenage son Joey (Tahan).  There are some wonderfully awkward moments as Kate struggles to balance her career, her marriage (clearly going through one of those "rough patches" that we learn in the film's penultimate scene even the "perfect" Ben-and-George also went through), and her parenting, as Joey is also clearly going through something that is too much for her to handle.  What was so great about Tomei's work as Kate was the way that she found that frustrated politeness that you frequently have to have with your older relatives.  Age and memory loss (and let's admit it, loneliness) have sort of worn out their social cues and they cannot pick up when you want a conversation to end and get back to your work.  It's one of the few times I've seen a scene like that played so realistically onscreen, and it makes the point where Kate finally gets angry at her husband for his infinite patience with his uncle all the more devastating, particularly for Ben, who finally realizes that he is seen not as a welcome guest but an enormous burden on his nephew and his family.

It's also particularly interesting to see one of the strange side effects of not having children and getting older onscreen.  I've written frequently on this blog about the need for more stories about single people, a growing population in the United States in particular who are rarely represented onscreen (and if they are, it's almost always in the context of them falling in love by the end of the movie), but there's something to be said for a childless couple on the big screen too.  There's an inherent obligation that comes with taking in your parents as they get older, as they took care of you when you were a child and once loved you more than anyone else did.  It's an awkward time when you have to rely on someone whose diapers you once changed, but there's a social norm that goes along with that.  Relying on nephews/nieces and younger friends-that's an entirely different situation and one where you have to gamble that their love for you through the years was real and not out of familial obligation.  You see that in this film when you see the limits to Kate's willingness to change her life in order to accommodate her husband's uncle.  It's a story I haven't seen on-screen before, which made it deeply compelling to watch fold out before us, as it's something that will increasingly happen to an aging Baby Boomer population (particularly an aging gay Baby Boomer population).

The final moments of the film are a risky endeavor, with George finding a rent-controlled apartment from a handsome British man (Christian Coulson, and yes that is in fact an all-grown-up Tom Riddle, who ended up putting pretty much every other "hot" actor to come out of the Harry Potter franchise to shame with his dapper British sexiness), just in time for his partner Ben to die.  The final moments are a conundrum, as there is little absolution and no indication what George (who has lost the love of his life but found what appears to be security in his financial well-being) and Joey (whose relationship with Vlad is never truly revealed-is it drugs?  Is it loneliness with another mate?  Is it, as the film strongly implies but never says out loud, sexual?), but instead just two quiet moments in a film filled with things unsaid.  It's a bold way to end a film, but Sachs has put in the time at that point to make it succeed.

Those were my thoughts on Love is Strange-what are yours?  Did you agree that this was a bit deceptive based on where it went and the trailers (and, like me, didn't you love that you didn't know everything that happens based on the trailers?)?  What were your thoughts on Lithgow, Molina, and Tomei as the three main characters, all more subdued than usual?  And which of the messages (aging, insecurity, the childless pressure, the complications of young love) most stuck out to you after you left the theater?  Share in the comments!

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