As much as I wanted to love this film I just couldn’t. As much as I wanted John Lithgow and Alfred Molina to wow me with award worthy performances it just didn’t happen. And as much as I would like to agree with so many other reviewers about the qualities of this well-intentioned film, I just can’t. Love is Strange was to me the biggest disappointment of the summer, but I suppose that’s because I wanted so much for it to be so very good that my expectations were too high. Then again, I feel the director shares some of the responsibility here, and that he settled too often for “good enough” when he should have made the extra effort to do better. He has dropped the ball on a wonderful opportunity and done a disservice to two fine actors who deserved to have this film be as good as it should have been.
I absolutely love the concept of the film, mostly because it sounds a bit like the plot from on old 1937 film I adore, Make Way for Tomorrow. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) are a couple who have been together for nearly forty years. They don’t have kids, but they have many friends and an extended family that appear to be very supportive as demonstrated at a beautiful wedding ceremony held in lower Manhattan. Things change however, when George loses his job soon after and the couple must sell their apartment. For financial reasons they are forced to “temporarily” live apart until they can find a new home. Seems like a reasonable idea, but of course it’s one thing to love your friends and family and an entirely different thing to live with them.
Ben goes to stay with his nephew (Darren Burrows) and family (Marisa Tomei and Charlie Tahan), while George ends up at the apartment of some much younger and more socially active friends (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez). And this is where the heart of the story really is. As much as the previews and ads want you to believe this film is about the relationship between Ben and George and the pain of their separation, the focus is all on the tension that builds between those forced to live together who otherwise wouldn’t. An already awkward situation is made more difficult because Ben has to share a bedroom (and bunk beds) with his nephew’s temperamental teenage son as the sedate and classical music loving George now spends his evenings with well-intentioned neighbors who seem to live life in a never-ending stream of parties and get-togethers.
The press release I received says that director Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On, Forty Shades of Blue), and I quote, “blends the romance of New York City’s streets and skyline with a delicate Chopin piano score to poignantly capture both the lightness and sorrows of this modern day love story”. However, the moments that feature the Chopin music are very heavy handed (a montage of shots of random people listening intently is less than inspiring), and I didn’t see a lot of the city or its skyline in this film. In fact, I didn’t realize that Ben’s character was relocated to Brooklyn until I read the press release. The set up of sending the two men to two separate homes is so poorly executed that if you’re not paying close attention you’ll be confused about why they haven’t gone to stay in the same place. Especially since there is a relative with a home large enough to accommodate them, although it is in New Jersey and everyone keeps making little jokes about how no one would want to go there even if only temporarily. Really? I would think these two men would.
The incompetent execution extends to the lack of so-called coverage. Many scenes are shot with just a few camera angles (if more than one) leading me to believe the filmmakers had a very small budget with a very tight schedule. Okay, I can understand that, but that’s no excuse for not creatively coming up with the coverage necessary to tell such an intimate tale. For example, when you have a close up of one of the two heroes expressing his feelings to the other you want to see the reverse and the face of the one who is listening (and sometimes even talking), and not just the back of their head. This to me is lazy filmmaking. Not to mention the lack of any real conflict occurring between the houseguests and their hosts. Ultimately, it just seems that everyone is a bit shallow and unfeeling towards these two men who need a little more help than they originally thought they did. And don’t give me the false hope of the ridiculous situation that pops up at the end completely out of the blue. It wasn’t necessary. I don’t want to give anything away, but it would have been fine just to show us the final home without the way it was acquired. It seemed to me a weak attempt to build pathos in a film that is sorely lacking elsewhere.
Sorry, but Love is Strange completely dropped the ball for me, and when there’s so much potential I find that unforgivable. I’m glad we’re finally seeing such characters as Ben and George on the big screen; I just think they deserved a better story, and certainly a much better director. This is one you can skip.