Love is Strange
Reviewed by A. O. Scott in The New York Times
From the first moments we see them together — waking, washing and dressing in the Manhattan apartment they have shared for decades — it is clear that Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) are a walking illustration of the phrase “old married couple.” They know each other so well and have adapted, graciously and sometimes a little fractiously, to each other’s peculiarities. State law, at long last, has caught up with the reality of their relationship: The first scenes in Ira Sachs’s “Love Is Strange” take place on the morning of George and Ben’s marriage, which is solemnized in an alfresco ceremony followed by a relaxed and lively party at home.
But the couple’s bliss is disrupted by bigotry that is at once unexpected and sadly unsurprising. George loses his job teaching music at a Roman Catholic school because his marriage amounts to a public avowal of his sexuality and is thus a violation of the terms of his contract. The loss of his income — Ben is retired — means they can no longer afford their mortgage, and so must sell their co-op and rely on the hospitality of some of the people we know from the wedding, who are all eager to help.
This being New York, nobody has enough space for both of them. The one relative who might has a big house in Poughkeepsie, which is out of the question for these nondriving Manhattanites. Mr. Sachs may be fudging reality a bit to get his story moving, but it would be gauche to object too strenuously. And so Ben moves to the airy Brooklyn apartment where his nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows), lives with his wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). George accepts a spot on the living room couch of his former neighbors Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez), who are both New York City police officers.
Various forms of awkwardness ensue. George, whose tastes run to Chopin and quiet evenings with a book, finds himself adrift in a household prone to impromptu parties and loud Dungeons & Dragons sessions. His hosts are unfailingly kind (and he appreciates being introduced to the pleasures of “Game of Thrones”), but also a bit clueless about the extent of his loneliness and his need for peace.
Ben’s situation is more complicated and is really at the heart of this sensitive, acutely observed, resolutely nonmelodramatic film. Though he tries to be courteous and considerate, his presence starts to annoy Joey, who sleeps on the bunk below, and Kate, a novelist whose daily writing routine is disrupted by Ben’s chatty, needy presence.
Ben tries to mind his own business, but latent tensions and fissures in the household seem to pop into relief when he is around, and impertinent questions start to percolate in the viewer’s mind. What’s going on with Joey and his friend Vlad (Eric Tabach)? And for that matter, what’s going on with Kate and Elliot, whose interactions seem increasingly strained and chilly?
One of the strengths of this wise and lovely film is that it declines fully to answer these and other questions. The story of George and Ben seems to have been plucked from a meadow of narrative possibilities; an interesting movie could have been made about everybody in this one. “Love Is Strange” is Mr. Sachs’s fifth feature as a director, and its title would suit almost all of them. The strangeness here may have less to do with the affection that binds the central couple than with the ties of kinship and friendship between them and the rest of the characters.
But Mr. Sachs is an especially careful student of the odd rhythms and quiet intensities of couplehood, both gay and straight. (“Married Life,” his 2008 comedy noir, also has a title that could cover a lot of his oeuvre.) Mr. Lithgow and Mr. Molina, seasoned and subtle actors, beautifully capture the small pleasures and petty irritations Ben and George live through, and also their pride at having survived, together, for so long.
Mr. Sachs, who wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, casts an occasional discreet glance backward at the post-Stonewall history of gay men in New York, a complicated chronicle of tragedy, resilience, struggle and fun. But that history nonetheless feels implicit in every frame, infusing what might otherwise be a touching anecdote about real estate troubles and houseguest etiquette with gravity and grace.
The impact of the final scenes — tears are highly probable — comes from the curious, cumulative sense of intimacy. By the time the movie is over, you feel as if the people in it were friends you know well enough to tire of, and to miss terribly when they go away.
Reviewed by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times
“Birdman,” a big bang of movie razzle-dazzle from Alejandro G. Iñárritu, opens with a winking sleight of hand. Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood has-been turned Broadway second-chancer played by a blissed-out Michael Keaton, is hanging out in his dressing room at the St. James Theater in Times Square, by which I mean floating, like a mystic who’s passed transcendence and gone straight to nirvana. It’s a destabilizing liftoff for a funny, frenetic, buoyant and rambunctiously showboating entertainment in which Mr. Iñárritu himself rises high and then higher still.
It’s a nice change of direction for Mr. Iñárritu, whose has tended to pull viewers low and then lower in beautiful bummer movies, like his last one, “Biutiful,” about a terminally ill man who communes with the dead. For “Birdman,” he has lightened both his mood and metaphysical load to productive effect by concentrating on Riggan’s efforts to stage — as writer, director and star — an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It sounds like an alarming idea (and a strange fit, especially given Carver’s minimalism and Mr. Iñárritu’s maximalism), yet Riggan has bet his career on it in hopes that the play will deliver him from his ignoble, lucrative past playing a screen superhero called Birdman.
Did someone say Icarus? Well, no, that name doesn’t come up in this backstage comedy (and sometimes drama), at least not that I remember, although Mr. Iñárritu and his co-writers (Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo) toss others including Roland Barthes, Jorge Luis Borges and Martin Scorsese. The story is as old as time — the play’s the thing, once again — and unwinds over several dreamily integrated days and nights that take Riggan from his meditative calm through the labyrinthine halls of the St. James in the hours and minutes leading up to the opening, during which (big breath): He rehearses an actor, receives a kiss, throws a punch, downs a drink, smokes a joint, walks a street and waxes poetic, comic, tragic and melodramatic.
Embracing the principle of more, Mr. Iñárritu packs the movie with multitudes, assorted backstage shenanigans, showbiz clichés and commedia dell’arte types. As Riggan moves onstage and off, from rehearsal to dressing room, he finds romance in the wings, instigates a little cloak and dagger, and powers through some heart-to-heart encounters with his rehabbed daughter, Sam (a wonderful Emma Stone in sexy-cynical ragamuffin mode). A supercilious theater actor, Mike, played by a pitch-perfect, perfectly cast Edward Norton, challenges Riggan mentally and physically by declaring his allegiance to the theater (truth or bust!) at one point wielding a copy of Borges’s “Labyrinths” so ostentatiously that even the most myopic moviegoer should be able to read the title.
Action creates reaction, and together they create flowing, organic form in “Birdman.” Riggan isn’t the only man on the move: So is Mr. Iñárritu, who has staged and shot the movie so that it looks like everything that happens, from airborne beginning to end, occurs during one transporting continuous take. The camera doesn’t just move with the story and characters, it also ebbs and flows like water, soars and swoops like a bird, its movement as fluid as a natural element, as animated as a living organism. (Like that famous Steadicam shot in “GoodFellas“ but longer.) Mr. Iñárritu’s partner in illusionism is the director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, a Houdini of fluid camera movements whose genius is for keeping you watching rather than distractedly wondering.
The camerawork in “Birdman” is an astonishment, and an argument that everything flows together, which in this movie means the cinematography, the story, the people, even time and space. And as soon as Riggan floats down to earth, a series of walls — between character and actor, onstage and off, representation and reality — begin to collapse. The most obvious divide is between Mr. Keaton, who, starting in 1989, played Batman in two movies directed by Tim Burton, and Riggan, who made a killing playing Birdman, a feathered franchise jackpot. Years later, Riggan appears haunted by Birdman, whose image stares out from a poster hanging in the actor’s dressing room and who, in a creepy basso profundo rasp, offers a stream of Sammy Glick-isms about career and fame.
A few movies back, Mr. Iñárritu parted ways with his frequent collaborator, the writer Guillermo Arriaga. The two had joined forces with the 2000 triptych “Amores Perros” and then proceeded to win new admirers and detractors with other multi-stranded narratives, “21 Grams” and “Babel.” I fell for “21 Grams” despite its absurdities, largely on the strength of its performances by the likes of Naomi Watts, who, in “Birdman,” plays an actress, Lesley. But Mr. Iñárritu lost me with “Babel,” less because of its melodramatic excesses than because of its mechanistic quality and sanctimony. “Birdman” marshals its enjoyable excesses into a rigorous form, too, but here a newly generous Mr. Iñárritu has made room for the audience’s pleasure.
He’s also given the finger wagging a rest. To that end, it’s worth drawing your eye to the small card stuck on one of the mirrors in Riggan’s dressing room that reads, “A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.” It sounds a bit like Gertrude Stein or poorly translated Kant, but is attributed to Susan Sontag. It may be a gloss on a line from “Against Interpretation,” her book of essays on impoverished criticism and its “shadow world of ‘meanings.’ ” (“A work of art is a thing in the world,” she writes, “not just a text or commentary on the world.”) There’s plenty to embrace in Sontag’s polemic, though a critic can perhaps be forgiven for rooting around in the shadow world of meanings if the artwork has cloaked itself in Meaning and Importance, as some of Mr. Iñárritu’s movies have done.
You can dig or just skate in this significantly better new one, the full title of which is “Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” That phrase appears late in the movie, by which time Riggan has dodged various bullets, including a lover, Laura (Andrea Riseborough, amusing); an ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan, touching); and his frantic producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis, deftly funny). Riggan has also crossed paths with a terribly mean theater critic for The New York Times, the rhymes-with-witch Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), who threatens to close his play before seeing it. Her threat provokes a savage verbal assault on her from Riggan, an invective that by its very heat, expresses a conflicted desire for her benediction. This, you see, is also what we talk about when we talk about love.