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Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: Romantic Drama LOVE IS STRANGE is a Lovely But Baffling Rough Draft Film

One of the worst kinds of films to watch are the ones that have all the potential, and fail to pursue it. This is what the main problem is in writer/director Ira Sachs' new romantic drama, LOVE IS STRANGE. A stellar cast? Yep. A vast setting? Yep, New York City. A good story? I do believe one is in there somewhere...

The thing is, there are several angles Sachs could have explored in the film. But he doesn't. As a result, the story is unfocused and severely lacks a point. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, two fine actors, star as a newly married couple, who are forced to vacate their posh New York City apartment of more than 20 years after George (Molina) is unexpectedly fired from his job as Catholic school music teacher once the priest in charge got wind of his nuptials. Ben (Lithgow) is a 70-something year old man, a senior citizen by law, we're only left to presume that George is significantly younger than him by the way they both carry themselves (Ben has a fairly slow walk, compared to George's sprightly step). But the film doesn't do a very good job at making that point otherwise, unless you count the scene in a real estate office when an agent mentions that Ben is eligible for a senior living discount. A relevant passage in the film that is sorely left dangling.

The premise is vast but merely swirls around topics peripherally. Certainly there would have been something worth exploring if we were given a little more information on the history of Ben and George--how they met, how they've evolved since then, etc. Aside from a short but lovely scene between them at a bar, when Ben casually mentions his past transgressions, we don't have much to go on. And, ironically, that was during the last few minutes of the movie. It's as if we were just starting to get to know them when they credits began to roll.

This couple is one of the many victims of New York City's skyrocketing rent prices, after George was unceremoniously terminated from his job ultimately due to prejudice. That's a story within itself--how does that firing affect him emotionally? How does it affect his relationship? While Sachs seems to be trying to tell that story, however pervasively, it's not very coherent. We see George giving private music lessons to a few students for extra money, and admittedly coming off a bit frustrated doing so sometimes. There is also a narration by Ben alluding to the fact that he reached out to students and families he was closed to in his position as a means to gain their support, but nothing ultimately comes from this. In fact, it seems more as a Dear Diary letter to himself than to any person or people in particular. It's just sloppily done, and doesn't serve the characters at all.

Beyond the couple's financial and habitual shake-up, there is a lurking story that clearly Sachs wanted to do more with but doesn't quite invest in it. Ben and George decide to live apart while they restore their monetary situation due to 1) the teeny apartments in New York make it hard to accommodate more than one guest at a time and 2) they don't want to venture outside the city to stay with a relative in the suburbs who has enough space to bunk both of them. This second note seems particularly tedious since it's clear that Ben and George don't want to live apart but refuse to move "an hour and a half" outside the city to lessen the strain on their relationship. Well, that and the fact that neither George nor Ben can drive, and George wants to at least maintain his private lessons in the city while he continues to look for a new job (Ben's job as a painter makes location less of a factor for him). But still, it seems like one obstacle that could have been avoided.

This struggle for new living quarters comes off as far more of a hassle story-wise than anything else. George moves downstairs in his neighbors' small apartment, while Ben opts to stay with his nephew Elliot and his wife Kate (Darren E. Burrows and Marisa Tomei) and their son Joey (Charlie Tahan). The latter which sparks turmoil when Ben's ubiquitous presence disturbs Kate's work-from-home zen, and also annoys Joey, who's forced to share his bunk bed with his great uncle. No, it's not ideal. But Sachs seems to be driving at a point here with this subplot, but never quite gets there. Joey at first seems like an awkward young boy struggling with the concept of sexuality--his and Ben's. But later we learn that he's really just an awkward boy with uncontrollably pretentious behavior, while his mother just sits idly by and accepts it. This generational disconnect between Ben and Joey touches on Joey's rather misguided perspective on homosexuality, which of course rubs Ben the wrong way. But what could have yield for an interesting dialogue was dropped and re-routed completely, without really being addressed. We can only chalk it up to a poorly executed coming-of-age storyline that could have been so much more.

And on the other hand, George is stuck in a perpetual party zone with his former neighbors and current roommates, reduced to sleeping on the couch and subjected to loud music and far too many other random guests sipping drinks, dancing and playing cards. The greatest scene in the film is when George picks up and leaves the apartment in the pouring rain to ask Ben if he could spend the night with him this one time. Their embrace is sweet, pitiful, but hugely effective. It gets us back to the strength of the film--the forced estrangement of Ben and George. These moments (including the one when they're in the bar at the end), while few and far between, are genuinely tender scenes--even if they don't last long and don't at all make up for the rest of the film.

Even the title, LOVE IS STRANGE, doesn't refer to any of the themes represented in the film. Love is gorgeous, like the postcard-setting of the film. Love is amorous, like that between Ben and George. Love is hard to understand, like in the case of Joey. And yes, love can be strange sometimes. But LOVE IS STRANGE never quite helps us come to this conclusion. It just bounces around its concepts without actually arriving at a point. Which makes it more of a brainstorm of nice ideas than a fleshed out film. A real shame.

Rating: D+ (** out of *****)

LOVE IS STRANGE is in theaters August 22nd.


Anonymous said...

Wow, that's a pretty low blow rating for a film I've heard nothing but good things about...but I applaud your willingness to say what you feel and how you feel with now reservations! I can't wait to see this, but I'm glad to see a review that isn't all raves and bowing because it helps temper expectations. Nice job, and sound reasoning.

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