There is a wonderful scene in Ira Sachs’ new film, Love Is Strange, in which Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) share a drink at a venerable gay bar in New York City. Ben relates a powerful story to the bartender, in which he and several gay friends marched into that very same bar nearly 4 decades earlier, newspaper reporters in tow, and demanded to be served. It began a revolution of sorts, instituting a level of acceptance never before seen in the gay community. Clearly in awe, the bartender thanks Ben for his bravery and gives them a free round of drinks. Ben and George, a romantic couple who have been together for 40 years, look at one another and share a mischievous laugh. George chides the obviously-lying Ben, “You’ll do anything for a free drink!”
This scene masterfully draws upon the shared experiences—the pain, the joy, the closeted agony—of two strong men who have preserved their dignity no matter how hard society tried to strip it from them. There are decades of stories, inside jokes and meaningful silences between them; more than enough to fill a two hour movie and transport audiences into a world they’ve never experienced before. And yet, this rich and textured scene represents one of only two meaningful scenes shared by Lithgow and Molina in the entire film; two scenes where these thoughtful, articulate lovers silence the noise around them and actually speak to one another.
After New York legalizes gay marriage, Ben and George rush to take advantage. Unfortunately, George, who teaches music at a Catholic school, is immediately dismissed when the archdiocese learns of his marriage. In order to stay rooted in their beloved New York City, the couple must make some hard decisions, including living apart and crashing with family and friends. Your heart aches for these two lovers who, after finally getting the chance to marry, must now live separately just to survive.
Watching Love Is Strange feels like going to a party to reconnect with old friends, only to be cornered by chatty strangers who are full of boring stories. The film does have some admirable qualities, however, including a quiet nobility that is embodied by the beautiful Chopin-heavy soundtrack. Sachs paints an observant portrait of New York City, which functions as the lover that neither Ben nor George can leave behind. He tries to say something about the challenges of relationships, both hetero and homosexual, as well as some subtle commentary about economic instability in the modern world. But mostly, Love Is Strange just feels like a wasted opportunity to tell a story that audiences need to hear.
Had Sachs and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, tightened their focus on Lithgow and Molina, it might have made a fascinating companion piece to Linklater’s Boyhood, which also boils down its slice-of-life premise to a series of seemingly-disconnected moments that accumulate power as the story progresses. Unlike Boyhood, however, Lithgow and Molina serve as conduits into two forgettable stories that offer only relationship tropes or stale insights into the human condition.
Whereas Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette were fully-realized characters who grew (or repeated the same mistakes) and matured over the years, the supporting cast in Love Is Strange is decidedly flat. Kate (Marisa Tomei) and Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), the couple who adopts Ben, are painted in the broadest strokes imaginable. Elliot works too much, frustrating Kate, who needs help with their emotionally-distant son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). This is all pretty standard, by-the-numbers melodrama that we’ve seen in dozens of other movies. Ben’s interactions with Kate are mildly interesting, but only as a passive-aggressive study in manners and tolerance. All character growth influenced by Ben (which seems to be his only function) is merely implied, particularly with Joey, whose moment of insight comes so late in the story that it feels disconnected from anything that preceded it.
George fares even worse with his storyline, as he’s trapped with a one-dimensional pair of party animals. Molina does a fine job portraying George’s growing desperation and the brave face he adopts to hide it, but it’s all done for the benefit of the audience. By keeping Lithgow and Molina apart, Sachs has relegated two dynamic actors to repeatedly playing the same melancholy note; their sadness neither enlightens the movie’s themes nor helps their characters to grow. This is especially frustrating because Ben and George have led such a rich, fulfilling life together before the movie even begins. Is that story not worth telling? Must we endure these unrewarding plotlines just to get a few morsels of the story we actually wanted to see? Perhaps it’s unfair to saddle filmmakers with such expectations, but enlisting powerhouse talents like Molina and Lithgow to play long-time lovers only fuels those expectations.
The aims of Love Is Strange are admirable, but the script’s repetitive structure makes this slice-of-life feel decidedly stale. Worst still, its two stars, Lithgow and Molina, are largely wasted; each serving as glorified entry points into stories we wouldn’t pay to see on their own merits. It’s painful to not recommend a movie that has so much talent surrounding it, but there are only a few fleeting moments of satisfaction to be found here. What’s more, these moments never really build toward anything substantive. In trying to demonstrate that Ben and George are no different than any other couple, the filmmakers have deprived us of their story. It would be delightful to spend a couple of hours with these two soul mates, but, alas, we never get the chance. Strange, indeed.