Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Strange Thoughts

A darling of Sundance and other film festivals, the movie Love Is Strange was at one point talked about as a possible Oscar contender. Somewhere between that splashy arrival, its wide release, and the run-up to the Oscar nominations, all its momentum fell away -- it received no nominations in any category. But I'd heard enough good critic buzz about it to throw it in the Netflix queue anyway.

Love Is Strange is the tale of Ben and George, an old gay couple in their 70s. After nearly 25 years together, they decide (and are finally able) to get married... after which George is immediately fired from his job teaching music at a religious school. Suddenly unable to afford their expensive New York apartment, they look to their friends for help and a place to live. But it soon proves a hardship for everyone.

Although this movie sounds very much like a "Gay Film" on paper, those elements really just push the story into motion. The bulk of the movie is quite universal, neither gay nor straight, and mainly illustrate the difficulties of living with family. Ben moves in with his nephew, putting an immediate strain on his family. The nephew's wife and teenage son wind up most impacted by the new situation; the former works at home and has to deal with Ben day in and day out, while the latter is forced to share his room right at the time of life he most wants privacy. At the same time, Ben is quite set in his ways at his age, unused to living with so many other people. And as his husband George is having to live elsewhere, the two must deal with living apart at a time when they finally were able to marry.

The film's biggest asset is its cast. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina star as Ben and George. Each lends an incredible pathos to his character, and the two are effortlessly authentic as an old couple of 25 years. Marisa Tomei plays Ben's in-law Kate, and does an excellent job portraying a difficult character arc, going from total support of Ben to fed up with his constant presence. Young actor Charlie Tahan is also quite strong as teenage Joey, lashing out against the unwelcome intrusion of "Uncle Ben."

The film is strong in its simplicity, and often quite honest and real. But it also indulges in a few distractions that really hurt its overall effectiveness. There's a side plot involving young Joey and a mysterious friend, with some unsubtle implications about the nature of their relationship. It's not so much that this thread is unnecessary as it is unfulfilled; the movie never really seems to reveal the point. There's also a strange turn near the end of the film. After being starkly realistic for 75 minutes, the final 15 minutes pull a bait-and-switch by bringing in fantasy and imagination. What is surely meant to be poignant instead comes off feeling unearned by what has come before it.

The overall effect of the movie is not bad, but I personally see why it didn't survive to figure into the Oscars this year. I give Love Is Strange a B-. It's fine if you happen to catch it (mostly for the acting), but not necessarily something to seek out.

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