Love is Strange has been described as “the year’s best romantic drama”. Your first reaction might be to assume that this reviewer experienced a pretty mediocre year, but many others have been similarly full of praise. The maddening thing is that when you look at the premise of the film it really does have potential to be quite brilliant. Unfortunately it has been utterly deprived of this in Sachs’s execution.
Love is Strange follows a chapter in the lives of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), a couple in the fourth decade of their relationship, who decide, with the changing of New York’s matrimonial laws to make their long-term commitment to one another official. George, however, is then fired from his job at a Catholic school for contradicting the Church’s official stance towards gay marriage—despite staff, parents and pupils alike knowing that the pair had been living together for over twenty years. In their resulting financial struggle, Ben and George must sell their small Chelsea apartment and having to rely upon the charity of their friends and family, the couple find themselves having to live apart, and in less than felicitous circumstances. The film explores how existing relationships begin to break down between the supporting characters under this added strain.
In fairness, it has some strengths, and it’s not a completely bad film. Lithgow and Molina, for instance, are brilliant; it’s really the charm of this pairing that shoulders most of the film’s weight – although there are scenes in which some lovely cinematography steals the limelight. At times it’s quite easy to be swept along by these moments of beauty, but then you leave the cinema and think, “What was the point of the last 94 minutes?” The answer, unfortunately, is very little. When it comes down to it, the problem is that Love is Strange should, and could, have been so much better, and that’s a very hard thing to forgive.
Firstly, dismiss any ideas you might have of an interesting discussion on the role the church plays in modern life. This simply never happens, despite the director’s notes seeming to promise something of the sort—“Love is Strange is about the ways we learn to live […] How does the Church teach us about love?” Of course, not every film needs some in-your-face political point, but the presence of the church is almost circumstantial, a mere plot-driver, a vague allusion which had untapped potential to be something more.
The most impossible-to-get-around issue, though, is the purported problems these family units seem to be suffering, which are so insubstantial, so insignificant, that they’re beyond belief. Take, as one example, the growing tension between Ben and Kate (Marisa Tomei), the self-proclaimed ‘free spirit’ wife of his nephew Elliot, with whom he finds shelter. Being a work-from-home novelist, Kate is used to the peace and quiet of her own company, and clearly finds Ben’s added presence and friendly chatter totally unbearable. In the space of something like 50 minutes we move from a scene in which Kate gives a gushing speech at Ben and George’s wedding about how much she adores them, how great an example they are, to one in which she can no longer tolerate the presence of beloved Uncle Ben. “Okay”, you might say, “living with people can be hard.” Well absolutely there’s no doubting that cohabitation can cause significant strain that a friendship may not. However, the breakdown in Kate and Ben’s relationship is given no substance whatsoever. A couple of scenes in which Kate gets mildly annoyed by Ben’s attempts to talk about her work, the rattle of a kettle when he makes her a cup of tea (which stops her working for all of 60 seconds); these are hardly things that justify the gradual disintegration of friendship between them that we are apparently just supposed to accept.
The same thing holds true with Kate and Elliot, whose marriage is apparently in a somewhat volatile state. Sachs describes how, through them, we “see love in crisis, and how we see ourselves in real and surprising ways in middle age”. Whilst Sachs might have dreamt up their relationship like this in his head, it’s almost as though he’s forgotten that he also has to represent it on screen somehow. One glimpse of a whispered conversation over a glass of wine and vague references to Elliot’s packed work schedule can hardly substitute for a real discussion of the difficulties of marriage in its middle-stages. In reality, the relationships between Sachs’ supporting characters are utterly superficial, banal and tiresome. As my neighbour at the screening said, this film should be called ‘First World Problems’, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s definitely one for the middle classes, that’s for sure.
Love is Strange is released in cinemas nationwide on 13th February.