Friday, September 19, 2014

Love Is Strange (opens in Cleveland September 19th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre)

[LOVE IS STRANGE opens in Cleveland on Friday September 19th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]

Review by Pamela Zoslov

Two films, made decades apart and both starring the superb Alfred Molina, provide a pair of historical bookends of gay acceptance. The 1987 PRICK UP YOUR EARS, in which Molina played Ken Halliwell, the man who bludgeoned to death his lover, playwright Joe Orton, dramatized the gay demimonde of 1950s-'60s London, where homosexuality was illegal and men coupled furtively in public toilets and back alleys. By the time of Ira Sachs' LOVE IS STRANGE, gay marriage is legal in England and Wales and in 19 U.S. states. Enormous strides, but as the film's story demonstrates, much work still needs to be done.

Molina plays George, who teaches music at a Catholic school and has been with his lover, Ben (John Lithgow), a retired painter, for 39 years. The film opens with the joyous occasion of George and Ben's wedding. The couple gather with friends and relatives at their Manhattan apartment, sit at the piano and belt out a rousing “Baby (You've Got What It Takes).”

When word reaches the Archdiocese that George has married his boyfriend, George is summoned to the office of school principal Father Raymond (the great Broadway musical star and Northern Exposure alumnus John Cullum), who fires him. George's firing seems like a natural subject for a story: George's legal battle against discrimination, as in the memorable gay-themed indie In the Family. But nope, the film doesn't go there. Instead, it focuses on the economic and domestic fallout of George's unemployment.

Due to several complicated financial and New York real estate factors, George and Ben are forced to sell their apartment and, until they find another they can afford, must live separately. Ben moves in with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and his novelist wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), in Brooklyn; George bunks with his neighbors, a pair of gay cops.

The living arrangement is hard on everyone. Kate, though polite and well-meaning, can't conceal her impatience with the presence of chatty Uncle Ben; nor can her teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), who has to give up his lower bunk to his septuagenarian uncle (though why an only child has bunk beds is unclear). Kate suggests Ben take his easel to the apartment's roof, where he enlists Joey's best friend, Vlad, as a skateboard-toting model for a painting. This, for some reason, angers Joey, who clearly has some issues. A subplot involving Joey and Vlad's theft of some French-language books from their school is left undeveloped.

George is deeply unhappy living at the cops' place, which is the site of a nonstop, noisy party. Molina's acting is a subtle marvel. A scene in which George heats up his lonely microwave meal amid the din of the party conveys the story's pathos conveys, silently, the story's pathos more effectively than the often pedestrian dialogue written by Sachs, with Mauricio Zacharias.

As the film proceeds, the narrative gets more diffuse. In its focus on character rather than plot, it is a little reminiscent of European film. It is also quite beautiful, thanks to Christos Vidourous' beautifully composed cinematography and Sachs' ample use of Chopin, Beethoven and other classical music. In a particularly well-constructed sequence, Ben mentally composes a conciliatory letter to his former school while listening to his private student play Chopin; this is illustrated by a montage of the uniformed students going about their schoolday. There is something of a Goodbye, Mr. Chips poignancy about Ben's story.

The film's greatest pleasure is in watching this talented acting duet fully embrace their roles as longtime lovers: snuggling in Joey's lower bunk during a rare night together, gently disagreeing at after a concert about the quality of a violinist's performance of Wieniawski (George says, “She milked it a bit”). After the concert, the two share a drink at a bar in the Village and reminisce about their relationship. It turns out George was always faithful, while Ben, the older partner, had a roving eye. “At least I've always been honest with you,” he says. After their date, Ben descends into the subway, the couple's future still uncertain.

There are undeveloped threads and a misstep near the end, where a shot of Joey weeping is held interminably; the specific content of his sorrow must be inferred (or invented) by the viewer. This type of ambiguity suggests narrative laziness. Nevertheless, this is a lovely chamber piece worth seeing for its tasteful aesthetics and remarkable lead performances. 3 out of 4 stars.

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