Film review: “Love is Strange”

Put seasoned actors like John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, and Marisa Tomei together in a film, and guaranteed there’ll be a certain amount of movie magic.

The opening shot has long-time partners Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) rising from their bed, dressing up in respectable suits, and heading out to their wedding after 39 years together. Of course the event is posted on all the social media, meaning that it shortly comes to the attention of the Roman Catholic archdiocese. George is promptly and unceremoniously fired from his job teaching music at Saint Grace Academy. The loss of income forces them to sell off their condo, which makes them effectively homeless in the hyperactive housing market of New York City.

Ben, somewhat older at 71, a now retired studio painter of modest professional success (he never really had a proper gallery show), is not in a position to contribute much to the financial security of the marriage. So they are forced to find shelter with friends and family-Ben in Brooklyn with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows) and niece Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their adolescent son Joey (Charlie Tahan), and George with Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez), two gay cops.

This is the crisis that sits, almost unrelentingly, at the heart of the 94-minute film, directed and produced by Ira Sachs, written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias. The story came to Sachs in 2011 when he married his same-sex partner (a painter) once it became legal in New York. They immediately became daddies to twin children. It may well have occurred to them, what would the consequences be if one of us lost an income, or became incapacitated? How much does a couple’s or a family’s happiness and success depend on the arbitrariness of society?

As George says to the priest, the principal of the school who fires him and then invites him to pray together, he’ll pray on his own, thank you very much-in other words, the Savior George follows is obviously not the same as the Church’s.

Love is Strange is not just a paean to enduring marital love, but an ironic exposition of the vulnerable nature of same-gender marriage even in a supposedly liberal, enlightened place like New York City. George and Ben’s years-long commitment never particularly bothered the church, but the very fact of marriage, the public statement of the commitment, led directly to the couple’s downfall.

At the same time the film also examines the nature of other relationships when subjected to high pressure. How solid are they when put to the test of having your lonely, aging uncle crashing with your family, or having your staid, older former neighbor move in with your late-night partying crowd of young urbanites? Both Ben and George are equally out of their element: Indeed, the only element they knew, at this point after four decades together, was the solace, warmth and familiarity of each other.

The score, deeply infused with pensive Chopin études, contributes to the autumnal atmosphere.

Sachs’s film is almost an O. Henryesque lesson in what can go wrong from the finest of intentions. There’s no happy ending, maybe just some wisdom passed on to the survivors. Will Elliot and Kate, both professional go-getters on their way up, and yet remarkably inept each in their own way at communication, learn anything? Joey, the grandnephew, ends the movie on an upbeat; perhaps he paid attention to Ben’s heartfelt conversations with him about love.

So tightly focused on Ben and George as the film is, a number of hanging threads are left blowing in the breeze. Details are not filled in about several sub-themes that are brought up and dropped, such as the nature of the relationship between Joey and his friend Vlad, nor why they obtained some books from the school library. Nor why, in this era of many similar stories about firings from church-related jobs, George didn’t mount a public campaign to reinstate him. Nor whether his message to his students about being true to themselves, in which he quotes St. Paul, “Love does not delight in injustice,” was something he just imagined doing, or did he actually do it, and what was the outcome?

Most film goers do not require every last plot point to be neatly wrapped and tied up in a bow by the end, but the result in this case of so many open questions left unaddressed just seems inadequate. Yes, we truly get the deep love between these two men. Yes, we get the irreparable harm done to them. Is that the whole story? A mood of passivity overlays this film, when a little healthy fight-back might have been called for.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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