Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Love is Strange

Alternate Title:  Hunting for Apartments and Plot

One sentence synopsis:  An elderly gay couple in New York lose their condo in Manhattan and must separately move in with friends and family.

Things Havoc liked: You can't see as many movies as I do without getting familiar with the work of particular directors or screenwriters, yet despite my best efforts to indulge in Indie cinema whenever practicable, Ira Sachs is one I've missed, his most mainstream film to-date being a 2007 Chris Cooper/Rachel McAdams romantic comedy by the name of "Married Life", which I had strictly never heard of until about two minutes ago. Openly gay, Jewish, and a proud New Yorker, Sachs has introduced himself to me by means of a film that has been raking in the critical acclaim from every critic known to man, a labor of love he both wrote and directed starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as an elderly gay couple whose lives fall apart after they get married.

I haven't seen John Lithgow in the better part of a decade, though he's been around, on television and in the occasional film. I've always liked him, even when he's chosen not-so-good things to appear in, such as the awesomely-terrible Sylvester Stallone action flick Cliffhanger. Alfred Molina meanwhile, whom I have seen recently in roles as varied as Spiderman 2, The Da Vinci Code, and the voice-cast for Elder Scrolls Online, is an excellent actor I always enjoy watching. It should not, therefore, be any surprise that the best moments in this film come when these two are on the screen together. They don't play stereotypes, nor even the standard stereotypical non-stereotype gay guys (yes, that exists), but an elderly couple who have been together for nearly forty years, and have nothing, any longer, to hide. Now elderly, and both maintaining as much of a quiet dignity as their strained circumstances afford them, both of them (particularly Lithgow) are absolutely at home in these characters, be it the fussy nervousness of their everyday morning routines on a day that is anything but routine, to a night on the town livened by Lithgow lying his way shamelessly into free drinks, to a sequence midway through the film when Molina's character, pushed to the breaking point by the dislocation his life has suffered, appears on the doorstep of Lithgow's family at the point of tears, desperate simply to see his husband after their enforced separation.

And why are they separated? Because of a series of circumstances stemming from Molina's character losing his job at a Catholic high school for being openly gay, a situation the Church was willing to ignore until the two of them officially married, and then suddenly decided was unacceptable (I believe this instantly). Unable to afford their Chelsea condo any longer, the two of them are forced to move separately into the houses of friends (Molina) and family (Lithgow), with all the awkwardness and irritation that entails. Molina's character winds up moving in with a pair of younger, gay cops, whose apartment is the hub of a never-ending party (a sequence midway through where an exasperated Molina walks in on them all playing tabletop role-playing games is awesome, though it would be more awesome if, instead of being driven out in a tearful huff, he were made to join in and roll up a character). Lithgow meanwhile winds up with his niece-in-law, played by Marissa Tomei (in a decent role at last) and her family, including his rebellious grand-nephew played by Charlie Tahan (the kid from I am Legend). Tomei is a writer who works from home while her workaholic husband is absent, and her teenage son is surly and makes trouble in the manner that all teenagers of that age do. The awkwardness that ensues as Lithgow tries his best not to interfere in the affairs of the family, despite the fact that he has no choice but to do so given his very presence, is very true-to-life, almost to the point of being hard to watch. I cite this as a positive because that is plainly the intention of the filmmaker.

Things Havoc disliked: I cite what follows as a negative because the rest of his intentions make no sense to me.

This film works, when it works, because the two leads are compelling and well-acted characters whom we care about. It stops working when the director, who is also the scriptwriter and one of the producers (VANITY PROJECT ALERT!), decides to trip himself up by failing to actually tell us a story about these characters. The problem isn't that the director wants to tell us a different, unrelated story, for that at least could have potentially worked if the other story was compelling enough. The problem is that the director has nothing whatsoever to tell us except that he seems to regard the very concept of "story" with unbridled contempt.

Everything, everything this movie brings up, be it plot-lines or character arcs or whatnot, every single narrative element in this film is a red herring, left without even the most cursory nods towards a resolution. Bad enough that that Sachs decides to leave our two headlining main characters aside in favor of focusing on the troubles of young Charlie Tahan, whose relationship with his friend Ivan is ambiguous (the film hints towards them both being gay before suddenly backing off of that), and who seems to be acting up at school (stealing books on French Literature, of all things). He then compounds the issue by not resolving any of those things. We never learn whether Tahan or his friend Ivan are gay (or rather, while we learn they are not, we never learn what they were up to together). We never learn why he stole the French Literature books. We never learn how, if at all, Marissa Tomei's problems with her absent husband are resolved. We never learn anything, and given that the entire film is comprised of us watching the characters dealing with these issues, this is something of a problem.

Indeed, there's an argument to be made that the entire film is one huge bait-and-switch after another. Early on, we are introduced to an abrasive relative of Lithgow's (I think), who lives upstate in Poughkeepsie, and who violently insults anyone who suggests that Lithgow and Molina might not want to live upstate with her. The film shines a prominent spotlight on this character, lets her behave abominably to a number of other characters, and then drops her entirely as soon as they decide to live elsewhere. In the back of my mind I was assuming that this character's offer to take them in would be brought up as at least a possible solution to the tension at Tomei's house, but the film seemingly forgets that any of that happened or that this character ever existed. Similarly the loud and obnoxious party-cops, the best friend Ivan, the workaholic father, all of these people are introduced, set up for a storyline, and then dropped seemingly at random when the movie gets distracted. Worst of all is the one bit of payoff we do get, the ultimate resolution for the primary plot of the film, which is such a Deus Ex Machina resolution that the movie practically calls our attention to that fact, dropping a heaven-sent solution on the heads of the characters by pure chance, only to then turn around and turn the film on another right angle spontaneously, deciding with ten minutes to go that the movie was actually about something else entirely. This is not a plot twist, but an incoherent swerve of focus, a distinction I maintain if only because, in order to have a plot twist, you must first have a plot.

Final thoughts:   One is tempted, at this juncture, to chalk up the foibles of Love is Strange as simply being the product of a (forgive me) strange writer and director, and judging from the universal acclaim this film has been garnering, that's precisely what most critics did. Not me. The subject matter here is very contemporary, extremely well-acted, and handled well, when it's handled at all, but the problem is that it simply isn't handled very much. Rather than tell us a story, or many stories, or even a broken, fragmented story, this director and writer has decided to tell us the beginning third of about six stories in turn, then write an abrupt, almost laughably anticlimactic ending just to wrap things up, and run out the door before anyone can question him on it. Perhaps my taste is bad, or perhaps no other critic was willing to criticize a film about gay men, of which there are very few, but the rightness of a subject does not excuse one from the need to actually tell a freaking story. And no excuses to the contrary, not pithy explanations about how life is unstructured or artful protestations about the purity of unstructured thought, can erase the fact that film, as a narrative medium, does not reward those who have no use for narrative as a concept.

Four times now, with Boyhood, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Under the Skin and now this, I went to see an indie film purely on the strength of absolutely universal acclaim it was generating, and three times now I have been fantastically underwhelmed as to the result (a dramatic understatement in the case of Under the Skin. It's tempting, upon further reflection, to decide that the problem is with me, and not with the other critics, for they are legion, and professional, and I am neither. But ultimately, I do not accept that I am wrong about these films, as I suspect there is something else, perhaps self-censorship, or perhaps simply the jadedness that comes from seeing 300 films a year instead of 50, that renders the major critics unable to accurately judge a movie like this one, or other indie darlings such as those above.

Ultimately, I don't mind a movie that takes risks or chances, and I don't even mind one that does so and fails. But I really don't like it when a movie decides, whether because its subject matter is so pure and right, or because life has some ineffable quality that cannot be reproduced accurately in narrative form, that it's therefore okay to waste my time with incoherent rambling instead of telling me the story I asked, and in fact paid them to tell.

Final Score:  5/10

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