Film reviews: Love is Strange | Coherence

Alfred Molina (left) and John Lithgow star in "Love is Strange". Picture: Contributed

Alfred Molina (left) and John Lithgow star in "Love is Strange". Picture: Contributed

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THE aftermath of a gay couple’s wedding points up the inextricable link between economics and happiness, writes Alistair Harkness

Love is Strange (15)

Directed by: Ira Sachs

Starring: Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, Marisa Tomei, Darren E Burrows

****

True to its title, Love is Strange offers a timely and tender spin on a traditional love story just in time for Valentine’s Day. Written and directed by Ira Sachs – a quiet chronicler of relationship complexities in movies such as Forty Shades of Blue, Married Life and the coming out drama Keep the Lights On – its tale of an ageing gay couple whose lives are suddenly straitjacketed by their decision to get married subtly dismantles the notion of there being any such thing as a perfect union.

As the film opens, Sachs sets the scene by introducing us to Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) as they roll out of bed and get dressed for their big day. Their casual bickering as they try to get out the door of their realistically proportioned apartment on time immediately lets us know we’re not in for a fantasy New York love story here, even if the way their family, friends and neighbours subsequently wax lyrical about what an inspiration their 40-year relationship has been suggests the opposite.

Indeed, after this opening salvo, reality soon comes knocking at their door as George’s updated marital status on his Facebook page results in him being fired from his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school. Despite being openly gay for the duration of his tenure, he’s devastated to discover that his nuptials contravene the school’s don’t ask/don’t tell attitude towards his sexuality. Suddenly he’s facing the prospect of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world with a retired partner to support at a time in their lives when there’s no romance in being frivolous and poor.

If there’s an issue in Love is Strange this is it. This isn’t really a movie about intolerance or the realities of gay marriage in a supposedly progressive society (although both those things do colour the drama); it’s about the way in which economics is inextricably bound up in the modern age with love and happiness, even though we like to pretend it’s not.

Early in the film, for instance, George and Ben (an artist who never made it big) decide to sell their apartment after realising they can no longer afford to pay the mortgage. Ben’s pension is pretty much worthless and George’s infrequent jobs teaching piano to the children of wealthy Manhattanites won’t cover their basic monthly payments, let alone leave them enough for food and utilities. Having purchased their previously rent-controlled apartment just as the financial crash was choking the life out of the city, they don’t have much equity in what is now a prime piece of Manhattan real estate. What’s more, in a cruel irony, their need to sell so soon after purchasing sees them fall victim to a complex right-to-buy law designed to make it easier for people like them get a foothold on the property ladder by heavily taxing the profits of so-called “flipped” properties.

With barely any money to find “something smaller”, and understandably reluctant to leave the city in which they’ve built their lives, they’re effectively homeless. For practical reasons, then, they decide to temporarily split up until they can find new digs. Ben moves in with his nephew, Elliot (Darren E Burrows), an always-working filmmaker who is married to harassed novelist Kate (Marisa Tomei). They have a teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), whose puberty-fuelled awkwardness is suddenly exacerbated by being forced to share his tiny room with his great uncle. George, meanwhile, moves in with their former neighbours, a younger gay couple whose social life isn’t very compatible with having a sixty-something houseguest sleeping on the couch.

Lithgow and Molina are fantastic here at evoking the humiliation of Ben and George’s situation. Lithgow folding his rangy, lumpy frame into the lower bunk of a teenager’s cramped room is an especially tragic sight, but one that subtly captures the way Ben, the more irascible of the two, is trying to adapt to this situation with dignity: he knows railing against it will only make things harder for his more practical husband. Molina, meanwhile, plays George not as a world-on-his-shoulders saint or martyr, but as a man whose exasperation at the harshness of their situation is tempered by his understanding that happiness isn’t a constant state, but a series of moments, some of which occur in rapid succession, some of which are spread further apart.

That doesn’t make things easier, but it helps them endure and this, the film suggests, is what counts most in love, especially when the embers of a relationship continue to provide comfort long after the spark that initiated it has been, if not exactly extinguished, then certainly surpassed in importance.

Coherence (15)

Directed by: James Ward Byrkit

Starring: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Hugo Armstrong

****

Doppelgangers, theoretical physics and astronomy come together in surprisingly entertaining ways in Coherence, a cerebral, micro-budget indie sci-fi film that has echoes of The Twilight Zone, Another Earth and Primer, but also plenty of narrative tricks of its own to prevent it feeling like a copy of a copy of a copy. Set over the course of a single evening, a dinner party going wrong is the simple but effective starting point for a brain-bending plot in which a passing comet initiates strange occurrences that force a group of friends (including Emily Baldoni, pictured right) to question how well they know each other – and themselves.

Smart phone screens cracking of their own volition and failing internet connections are initially subjects for glib jokes as this group of 30-to-40-somethings laughs off apocryphal stories about comet-related goings-on in the past. Yet amid the blocks of semi-improvised dialogue, writer/director James Ward Byrkit seeds intriguing thematic ideas that have dizzying pay-offs later. These mostly revolve around life not turning out as planned, as conversations about missed opportunities, failing relationships and stalling careers suggest things are far from OK beneath the surface bonhomie. (Casting Nicholas Brendon as an actor who goes unrecognised by a fan of his hit TV show feels like an especially nifty insider gag, given that Brendon is himself virtually unrecognisable from his days playing Xander in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

The plot kicks into gear when the city is plunged into darkness and two of the group visit the only house on the block that appears to have electricity. On returning – panicked and bleeding – their description of what they encountered is convincingly explained away by their friends. But what’s not so easy to account for is what they’ve brought back: a box containing photos of each of member of the house, some taken that evening.

That’s as much of the story that can be divulged without edging into spoiler territory. What’s impressive about the way Byrkit escalates the ensuing drama, though, is how committed he is to maintaining the film’s internal logic. At first ratcheting up the air of paranoia with plausibly grounded explanations for what’s happening, he eases us in to more outré interpretations with sly references to science and culture, then gets into brain-frying territory courtesy of a high-concept twist that explores what happens when our worst selves thrive.

Shot over five days, the film’s caught-on-the-fly look intensifies the characters’ feelings of chaos and confusion, but not to the point of obscuring the narrative puzzle; it remains graspable, albeit not without some work on the part of the viewer. Happily, it never feels like work.

The Wedding Ringer (15)

Directed by: Jeremy Garelick

Starring: Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting

*

Bromance again trumps romance in this regrettable rom-com about a charisma-free doofus so lacking in friends he’s forced to hire a best man for his impending nuptials. With less than ten days until the big day, sweaty tax attorney Doug Harris (Josh Gad) is under pressure from his unfeasibly good-looking fiancée Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) to produce his side of their wedding party. Too embarrassed to tell her that he’s really a loser whose always-absent friends are entirely fictitious, he calls on the services of Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart) – a sort of hetero escort who’ll pretend to be your life-long pal for a hefty price. His only remit – and see if you can spot where the film is heading here – is that his clients don’t mistake him for a real friend: once the best man’s speech is delivered, he’s out of their lives, never to be heard from again. From this desperate set up, Gad (unable to channel the sweetness that made his Olaf in Frozen such a joy) and Hart (far too brash to convince as the charmer his conman needs to be) generate zero laughs or chemistry. Writer/director Jeremy Garelick instead propels them through one unhinged set-piece after another, beginning with a dinner party that results in Jimmy and Doug almost fatally immolating Gretchen’s grandmother (thanklessly played by Chloris Leachman). Adding to the pain is the film’s contempt for its other female characters, with Cuoco-Sweeting particularly underserved by writing that reduces her to a shallow, materialistic and evil wench. There’s a bit too much casual homophobia, too, as the film tries to prove there’s nothing gay about the buddy movie love affair that inevitably flourishes between Doug and Jimmy.

Two Night Stand (15)

Directed by: Max Nichols

Starring: Miles Teller, Analeigh Tipton, Jessica Szohr

***

Conventional rom-coms have died a death in recent years and this one hardly bucks the trend, even if it does feature one interesting plot contrivance and two unconventional leads in Whiplash star Miles Teller and Crazy, Stupid, Love’s Analeigh Tipton. In the first instance, though, Two Night Stand is almost too desperate to be hip as it outlines attempts by recently dumped Megan (Tipton) to get out of her post-break-up rut by having sex with a random guy she meets online. When a snowstorm prevents her from making a quick exit from said “booty call”, tensions between her and Alec (Teller) escalate as morning-after shame results in jokes being taken the wrong way and instant gratification transforming into prolonged irritation. Stranded, they decide to make the best of a bad situation by getting high, getting to know each other and challenging each other to be up front about sex in an effort to get past all the bad movie relationship clichés. It’s this last point where the film has promise and Teller and Tipton connect in a way that feels honest and true. Sadly, director Max Nichols (son of the late Mike Nichols) forces them to conform to traditional rom-com archetypes. Particularly phoney is the third-act sop to the kind of destined-to-be-with-each-other ending that a million other films of this ilk have seemingly based on a wilfully ignorant reading of the final scene in Nichols’ father’s most beloved film, The Graduate.

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