‘Love Is Strange’: So is MPAA rating system

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For 21st Century Media

“Love Is Strange” is an often touching depiction of the lives of two elderly gay men.
Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) are a devoted same sex couple, who have been together for thirty-nine years. Ben is an artist and George teaches choir at a local Roman Catholic boy’s school. The two share a comfortable, tastefully-appointed Manhattan apartment.
When New York legalizes gay marriages, Ben and George eagerly take advantage of the new legislation and get hitched. Following the ceremony, we see them back in their apartment, surrounded by family and friends, belting out Broadway show tunes. Everything seems hunky dory.
George is summoned to the office of his principal. There, George is advised that some unidentified archdiocesan official has issued a fiat to fire him. George is flabbergasted by the news. George points out that he has never hidden the fact that he is gay and lives with another man. These protestations are in vain.
With the loss of George’s income, the couple can no longer afford to keep their home. They are unable to find a place, where they can live together. They seek temporary lodgings. The couple is offered the opportunity to move into a home of one of Ben’s relatives, where they could live together. However, that would mean living in Poughkeepsie (shudders). This option is unthinkable to them. So, after decades together, the senescent lovebirds are forced to live apart.
Ben moves to the Brooklyn loft apartment occupied by his nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows) and his family. This includes Elliot’s novelist wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei) and adolescent son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). Ben’s presence soon proves discomfiting. Kate is distracted by Ben’s presence, which disrupts her writing regimen. Joey is annoyed by the fact that he now has to share his room with an interloper, who is sharing his bunk bed. Kate and Joey resent the loss of the cherished privacy to which they had grown accustomed.
Meanwhile, George moves downstairs to the apartment of a pair of young gay policemen, Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez). He couch surfs there. George assures them that it will only be for a month, two at the most. It doesn’t take long before George’s presence becomes an unwelcome irritant.
Our Society has made enormous strides with regard to becoming more tolerant of homosexuality. Lamentably, homophobia sometimes still rears its ugly head. Most churches remain staunchly opposed to the gay lifestyle and vociferously condemn it. In an effort to justify their prejudice, many faith leaders quote scriptural passages.
I felt compassion for the plight of the two co-protagonists. Not only they had to battle with contemporary homophobia, but in prior decades, during which it was far worse. However, I struggled to accept their failure to anticipate the knee-jerk homophobic response of the Roman Catholic church when they go married. By no means do I condone this intemperate reaction. I thought that the archdiocesan decision to fire George for getting married to a man was wrong. He is an otherwise qualified employee, who has not done anything illegal.
While the church’s action was wrong, wasn’t it totally predictable? Somehow, the screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias seems to suggest that the co-protagonists were blindsided by the church’s decision. I struggled with this dramatic conceit. George works at a Roman Catholic boy’s school. Wouldn’t he be aware of the church’s publically stated stance in opposition to homosexuality? Shouldn’t he have anticipated their reaction to his same sex marriage?
For that matter, shouldn’t Ben and George have recognized that their abrupt intrusion into the homes of other people would constitute an imposition? What is the basis for their belief that their economic circumstances will change and enable them to find lodgings together? Should Ben’s family and the gay downstairs neighbors be expected to accommodate the two displaced men in cramped circumstances indefinitely?
Admittedly, I have reservations about certain plot contrivances in “Love Is Strange.” Nevertheless, I am appalled by the action of the MPAA in giving an R rating to this innocuous film. The MPAA is a trade organization, which has formulated a set of categories. These range from the ultra-mild G (for General Audiences and includes “nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children”) all the way to the harshest NC-17 (“Clearly adult. Children are not admitted”). An R rating is one level down from the dreaded NC-17. It indicates that a film has material, which is unsuitable for those under 17, but allows them to see it if they are accompanied by an adult.
To provide a frame of reference, R was attached to films like the grisly “Saw” series and the violence filled, sexually graphic “Sin City” and its sequel. Despite its staggering body count, Sylvester Stallone’s recent macho bloodbath. “The Expendables 3” was accorded a mere NC-17.
“Love Is Strange” contains a chaste peck on the cheek and a fully clothed embrace, both of which involve two men. There is absolutely no violence anywhere in the film. So-what accounts for the R rating? According to the MPAA, “Love Is Strange” received its R rating for the utterances of a few forbidden words. Of course, this is absurd.
**1/2 R (for language) 94 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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