Gay Film Review: Love Is Strange
Frankly, this film was strange. The beginning started out with huge promise, with an established gay couple living in their small but comfortable NYC apartment, getting ready for their legal wedding. Ben and George are together almost 40 years, and I sat back thinking I would finally see a film that celebrates gay men in long term relationships. The wedding was excellent, the small reception in their apartment was believable. But what follows after that left me wondering more than a few times.
Before I continue, keep in mind this is an established gay couple together for almost 40 years without any of the obvious signs of distress. By distress I mean serious alcoholism, drug addiction, emotional issues that cause them to over spend and go into debt. They seem to have good credit ratings, they seem to pay their bills on time, and they live within their means. In fact, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with either of them, so you would imagine that by the time they reach this stage in their lives they have something put away for a rainy day, or at least a certain amount of equity in something tangible in case of an emergency. Unless I missed something, these guys followed all the rules just like everyone else in America. They are so heteronormative and sexless they make Lucy and Ricky look like sinners.
George, the younger of the two, works as a music teacher for a Catholic school in NY. After his legal wedding, word gets out...through facebook of course...that he and Ben were legally married and ultimately George loses his job with the Catholic school. This trope has become so cliche I'm not even going to get into that in this review, in depth, because I just don't understand why anyone would put themselves in a position like that, knowing how much they depend on their job. I don't agree with the Catholic church on this, clearly, but I don't expect them to change the rules for me or any other gay couple overnight. The reality is that the Catholic church does not support gay marriage, plain and simple. So if you're working as a teacher in a Catholic school you're going to have to play by their rules whether you like it or not. And for the record, I went through 12 years of Catholic school and I know plenty of gay Catholics who do support gay marriage and gay couples. There are a lot of things overlooked we don't hear about, and Ben and George are not the only gay couples linked to Catholic schools. Just ask a nun when no one is listening. She'll tell you the truth.
In any event, what happens to George and the way he's fired sucks. It can happen in real life, too, and that sucks even more. However, what unfolds following this just left me wondering about what is missing from the storyline. As a result of this job loss at the Catholic School, George and Ben are faced with serious financial issues so horrific they are forced to sell their apartment and move in with relatives. And this all just sounded too contrived to me. First, they sell the apartment and only make a small profit, partly because they sold it too soon and are required to pay a penalty fee to the co-op. The realtor couldn't have mentioned this ahead of time? George and Ben couldn't have gotten a line of credit to hold them over until the grace period lapsed? They themselves weren't bright enough to know this was coming ahead of time? It's just not plausible. This is not how normal people who own property behave in a time of crisis. Gay men who reach that age are so familiar with this sort of financial management they can run circles around most straight people. And that's because they had to worry about it because they couldn't get legally married. So either Ben and George are just a couple of idiots who don't even know the basics, or this part of the plot was pulled out of a hat for pure drama. In other words, it's hard to be a gay man who has worked hard all his life and take these two seriously.
Then it gets even worse. Okay, they lost the apartment and don't have enough money coming in to keep them together as a couple so they split up and George moves in with these weird gay friends who party all the time and poor old Ben goes to live with a nephew who makes him sleep in the bottom half of a fucking bunk bed. Again, I could understand this if there were something fundamentally wrong with either Ben or George...something serious where there's no other alternative. But the way they are portrayed in the film shows they are as normal as it gets.
In the course of my lifetime so far, I've known many older gay couples who have gone through a reversal of fortune and they've had to scale back drastically, change their lifestyles, and learn to live on a more limited budget. I know one who lost his dental practice, invested all his money in a ridiculous business scheme, and had to start from scratch all over again with nothing. I could give so many examples of how these gay couples coped with this I could fill this page with stories about moving to Fort Lauderdale to living in a small condo in New Jersey. But never in my 42 year old gay life have I seen a gay couple who would move in with relatives and sleep in a bunk bed unless there's a legitimate logical reason for this to happen, without any hope for anything else at all. Literally, the next step for Ben and George, as they are portrayed in this film, is sleeping on the street. And as a married gay man in a relationship for over twenty years I can tell you for certain I would just as soon take a room at the Ramada Inn somewhere in New Jersey than move in with a relative and sleep in a bunk bed.
I won't give out any important spoilers because there are a few surprises at the end. The love that is shown in the film and the strong marital bond Ben and George share is wonderful. It breaks your heart and makes you cry to watch them forced into separation...until you start to wonder what's wrong with them...what aren't we getting? Did Ben play poker and lose everything on male strippers? Did George squander all his money on video games and booze? That part of the storyline is completely overlooked and if you are gay and married for a certain amount of time you have to wonder why this flaw is so obvious.
But I think what bothers me the most is that when straight people see this film they will think all older gay couples are like this...or could wind up in a position like this eventually. Of course I guess anything can happen, but that's so far from what I've always known as a gay man surrounded by other older gay couples it's almost as if I feel insulted by the way Ben and George are portrayed. We think about our finances all the time, maybe even more so because most of us know we don't have kids of our own to depend on when we're older. I have one friend who went through a serious reversal of fortune...from millions to social security...and he's still in his home. He's close to 80 and he's still working part time to supplement his income. And good friends have helped him out, too. So where are Ben and George's good friends? I had to wonder that as well. They don't know any older gay couples? The only gay couple they know are two younger goofs who party to the point of ridiculous?
The hardest part about this movie is that it could have been so good if a little more attention had been paid to reality and important details. I know the writer/director is gay, so I can't blame this on cultural lack of knowledge...I really just don't get it. At the same time, this ridiculous portrayal of an older gay couple who are too damn dumb to even know the basics about their own finances has been nominated, and won, several awards.
I think all this critical praise is because at a glance the movie has all the schmaltz and faux art elements the elite crowd seems to absorb with relish. I can't say that I hated the movie either. I continued to watch just to see if Ben would get tired of sleeping in a bunk bed and get his act together and find a good cheap hotel so he and George could be together. And what happens in the end will probably surprise you, and leave you either thrilled or disappointed. I only wish just once someone who makes a movie like this would pay more attention to how older gay couples live and think and deal with financial issues instead of just guessing and creating a storyline that leaves a handful of us who do know better wondering.