Saturday, August 30, 2014

Review: "Love is Strange"

Director: Ira Sachs
Runtime: 94 minutes

These days, it's so rare for character actors like Alfred Molina and John Lithgow to get truly rewarding roles, let alone lead roles. That alone makes Ira Sachs' Love is Strange worth seeing, even though the writer/director's latest is a bit on the scatterbrained side. Sweet without being saccharine, this unfussy look at love under late-in-life stress is mostly a success thanks to Molina and Lithgow's lovely performances. 

Molina's George and Lithgow's Ben have been together for decades, though they've only just become married. In the opening scene, Sachs and his two leads beautifully capture a lived-in union that is still filled with love. The two get ready for their long-overdue wedding day while smiling through each other's little quirks. Yet not long after everything seems like it's been wrapped up with a bow does everything start to come undone. George loses his job at a private Catholic school once word of his marriage reaches the Archdiocese, which puts him and Ben in a difficult financial position. 

Eventually, the two are forced to live apart. George takes up residence on the couch of another, much younger, gay couple, while Ben moves in with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their son Joey (Charlie Tahan). Though their friends and family do the best to accommodate them, it doesn't take long before different lifestyles start to clash, in ways both funny and serious. 

Yet after such a wonderful introduction to his main characters, it's frustrating how Sachs handles the early stages of their separation. The basic tensions that are established make sense, yet the movement of the plot tends to be a bit jumbled. At times, Love is Strange almost forgets that it's about George and Ben as it tries to work in the lives of Elliot, Kate, and Joey. Burrows is often flat as Elliot, while the usually effortless Tomei is stuck in a role that never feels consistent or coherent. And even though young Mr. Tahan's final scenes are quite nice, for most of the film he's left to play the same bratty teenager notes over and over. 

The more Sachs tries to expand his vision to include more characters, the more the heart of Love is Strange starts to slip out of his grasp. This is only made worse by the often head-scratching use of various shots of Manhattan, which come off as either padding or a lazy way of trying to open the film up to some broader idea.

Where Love is Strange works best is when it gets down to dealing with George and Ben's independent lives. The less the film is concerned with their interactions with friends and family, the better the film is as a whole. Tellingly, the film's strongest scene involves a letter George writes to the parents of his former students, an angle that is sorely under-explored. 

Molina and Lithgow play off of each other so beautifully, and it's a shame to see them caught up in various subplots that get in the way of really delving deeper into their characters. The handful of scenes at the end show what Love is Strange could have been had its priorities been sharper. Instead, Molina and Lithgow spend too much time fighting for attention in a film that's supposed to be their stories. The two actors are good enough to shine through all of the clutter, but Sachs' film seems more determined to hinder rather than help. Love, as presented here, isn't strange at all. What's strange is Sachs' all-over-the-place narrative focus on what should be a straightforward, tender exploration of one couple's affection through dire setbacks. 

Grade: B-

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