[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Love Is Strange opens today in limited release.]
“Write what you know,” is a common piece of writing advice. I don’t know how much of Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange is autobiographical, but it feels true to life. Boring, boring life. Because the film feels true to life, it also feels like one of the most self-indulgent films I’ve ever seen. Sachs is completely oblivious to what its audience would find remotely interesting or even emotionally relatable. The director takes his central relationship, one featuring great chemistry between Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, and completely undermines it with a hypocritical narrative. Not content to ruin his picture’s strongest asset, Sachs also drags his movie down with worthless side-plots and then tries to give his picture the illusion of depth and emotion with cheap tricks and unearned sentiment.
Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) have been together for 39 years, and they’ve finally tied the knot now that gay marriage is legal in New York City. However, even though George was openly gay at the Catholic school where he taught music, his official marriage has displeased the archdiocese, and he’s fired as a result. Unable to pay rent on their apartment, George and Ben are forced to move in with friends. George goes to live with their young, downstairs neighbors, and Ben goes to live with his nephew, Elliot (Darren E. Burrows). Their new living arrangements don’t go well as George is irritated by his hosts’ partying ways, and Ben annoys his nephew’s wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and son Joey (Charlie Tahan), who are dealing with other family problems.
For some inexplicable reason, Sachs thinks we’ll be fascinated by the intricacies of Ben and George’s inane finances. It’s not enough to know they can’t pay for their apartment. We also need to know about payments to the co-op board, flip taxes, and other details about how to deal with the cost of living in New York City. Perhaps Sachs thinks it adds authenticity to the story, but just because something is real, that doesn’t make it inherently interesting. Sachs doesn’t seem to care, and he appears to be catering to people who are already in his circle, people who would understand a joke about the indignity of New York City residents having to temporarily live in Poughkeepsie.
The story explains that while the couple have a friend they could stay with in Poughkeepsie, it’s too much to ask that they learn to drive and make a two-hour trip back and forth while they go apartment hunting; far better that they take advantage of the hospitality of other friends and family even though neither Ben nor George has a job that would demand a constant presence in the city. Ben is living off a pension and George teaches piano lessons part time. And even though they’re still in the city, we only see one scene of them looking for an apartment. Most of the film is spent at their separate crash pads. Their love is so strong that they’re willing to have other people make sacrifices for it.
For Sachs’, love is all well and good, but it can’t conquer inconveniences, and it’s far better to intrude on other people’s lives. This makes the film’s best part, the scenes between Ben and George, work against the picture. Lithgow and Molina are terrific together, and they make the decades-long relationship feel real. It’s about a human connection, not the mundane aspects of apartment renting and selling. But when they’re separated, the two are sad sacks who are stuck in crummy living conditions. Sachs then further draws us away by having to waste time on the hollow family drama of Joey being a pissed-off teenager whose relationship with his new friend Vlad (Eric Tabach) is troubling to his parents even though Vlad is a perfectly nice person. But hey! There are all kinds of love or something. Why bother to develop the idea when you can simply smother it with cheesy direction.
Sachs then resorts to lame tricks to provide the illusion of depth to compensate for random, hollow scenes. For example, in the middle of the picture, the director decides to drop in George narrating a letter he wrote to his former students while classical piano music plays in the background. You see, if you play classical music, the scene is therefore melancholy and not totally jarring, awkwardly placed, and forced to rely completely on an actor’s performance. And if the piano music isn’t enough of a crutch, Sachs then throws in some sunsets and shots of the New York City skyline. It’s something I would expect from an NYU film student, not someone who has been making feature films for the past two decades.
From a thematic standpoint, Love Is Strange makes no sense, and from a storytelling standpoint, it’s an absolute disaster. There’s almost no love to be found in the picture. There’s opportunism, rudeness, self-indulgence, obliviousness, and schmaltz, but the only real love comes from the simple scenes with Ben and George. Their small moments are where the movie comes alive, but Sachs doesn’t seem to grasp the difference between intimacy and insignificance. His failure to understand the two results in a movie that would be a cure for insomnia if it weren’t so painful to watch.