Ben and George are similarly in love; a longtime (39 years) couple, Ben (John Lithgow) is a retired artist while George (Alfred Molina) is a Catholic school music teacher. As the film begins, they are readying themselves for their wedding, and in the little exchanges prior to the ceremony, one not only sees their affection but also the little quirks that are endearing so long as you’re with that person. Soon after their idyllic park wedding and intimate reception in their New York City apartment, reality begins to intrude. Even though the school has known about George (and Ben) for years, their wedding (followed by honeymoon shots posted on facebook) is termed a violation of the Catholic school’s moral clause and George is fired.
The loss of George’s salary forces the couple to sell their apartment and rely on a number of uncertain external factors, namely the possibility of another job, the availability of an affordable rental in NYC, and the kindness of others. One relative has a room for both of them in remote Poughkeepsie (only 90 minutes by car, but neither knows how to drive) but the practicality of that, given the need for George to be able to look for a job and apartment , as well as see his private students, is ultimately discounted. As in the earlier Make Way…, the couple must live apart, in the homes of some well-intentioned, initially patient friends and relatives. George is offered a couch by the two party-loving gay cops downstairs while Ben stays in Brooklyn with his nephew Eliot (Darren Burrows), novelist wife Jane (Marisa Tomei) and their brooding teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). All try to make the respective arrangements work: the cops try to get George to share their passion for modern technology and the Game of Thrones, while Eliot and Jane try to make Ben feel at home and perhaps pick up the old paint brush. However, as the movie makes clear, good intentions are sometimes not enough: George is uncomfortable amidst the constant parties and fruitless job searches, while Ben’s attempts to engage Jane (who needs quiet in order to write) in conversation gradually test her patience, while his desire to paint gets him into some unintended rivalry with Joey.
In the nicely observant screenplay by Ira Sachs and Maurice Zacharias, love is indeed strange; the very freedom that Ben and George have sought has resulted in their being kept apart, though George never loses his inherent faith; Eliot and Jane love Ben, but are at a loss to help, given their own difficulties with each other and their son; Joey may be in love, but doesn’t know how to act on it. The script and Ira Sachs’ direction allow the actors room to create multi-layered portraits, from Marisa Tomei’s agonized mother , Charlie Tahan’s rebellious, sensitive son to the two towering performers at the film’s center. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have rarely been better as the loving couple who refuse to let diminished circumstances affect their love for each other; their tender scene in Joey’s room is exquisitely acted with touches of bittersweet humor. In addition, the screenplay doesn’t milk what might be the obvious dramatic moments; rather it looks for the unexpected, so that a late scene with a boy standing in a stairwell can indeed be rather moving. Love is Strange is the most tender love story of the year.
I loved 2011’s The Trip, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Ron Brydon as lightly fictionalized versions of themselves, touring the stately homes of England, sampling cuisine, and engaging in hilarious bouts of improvisation, especially the dueling Michael Caine’s. Now with the release of The Trip to Italy, I can say that it’s one of my favorite films of 2014, and another sequel that is even better than its predecessor. Not that it would have been a sure thing—Coogan and Brydon remark early on that a sequel is usually inferior (Brydon brings up the go-to exception: Godfather II), and both admit there is a bit of implausibility with the premise, given the two actors know little about food as they do a culinary tour of Italy for a magazine. Those expecting spot-on impressions and improvisational bouts of brilliance will not be disappointed; Michael Caine comes up again, along with dueling Bonds, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Christian Bale, Hugh Grant, Richard Burton reciting Lord Byron, among a host of others; and there are some bits (still funny) that might be more familiar to British audiences, like a riff on venerable talk show host Michael Parkinson.
Yet even more than the first Trip, The Trip to Italy touches on themes of friendship, mortality, morality, masculinity, aging and insecurity (sometimes in tandem--especially with regard to the opposite sex). This time around, Brydon is going through a career and midlife crisis; he’s been offered a shot at an American crime film, and the attentions of a lovely ship’s mate, while Coogan is dealing with an unwelcome career hiatus and some issues with his son. Their exploration of ancient ruins of Pompeii inspires them to ruminate about death…and for Brydon, in one instance, to do his hilarious “Man in the Box” impression, much to the disgust of Coogan. All this occurs among some of the most beautiful scenery on display this cinematic season. The Trip to Italy is a delight from the opening phone call to the twilight finish; you won’t regret the time spent in Coogan and Brydon’s company.