The Spirit Award nominated Love is Strange returns to Chicago screens in a limited engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Click here for show times.
Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange opens with the image of two pairs of feet. There’s a journey to be had and it will be quite the trek. If Love is Strange promises anything it’s that the people that these feet belong to will be trudging through the many obstacles that life presents. Sachs takes the premise of Leo McCarey’s Depression-era film Make Way for Tomorrow and contemporizes it. While Love is Strange can at times seem derivative, it is a film that succeeds not for its cultural or political timeliness, but rather for the impressive performances submitted by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.
It’s Ben (John Lithgow) and George’s (Alfred Molina) wedding day. They’re hustling down a New York City street in their finest suits, struggling to find a cab, and complaining like an old couple. They’ve been together for 40 years and clearly love each other. Marriage serves as the culmination of decades of hard work, where the two celebrate the time they have shared together. Happy couples rarely yield grand dramatic tension though and the transition from the idyllic to tragic is swift. George, a music instructor at a Catholic school, is terminated following the parish’s knowledge of his marriage. The dominoes quickly tumble as the couple is ill-equipped to pay their rent in their posh apartment. With no one in the city able to shelter both, they must take refuge in separate apartments with friends and family.
Sachs’ aping of McCarey leaves me to question what Sachs’ overarching ambitions are. The social and political climate of Love is Strange is not particularly defined, with crucial side characters operating in hazy platitudes. Consider George’s termination from the Catholic Church. He’s released under vague pretenses as a church official lingers in the shadows as if a sinister figure. Sachs is prone to exaggerations throughout the picture, highlighting antagonism within people without necessarily exploring the roots of their hostility. As Ben takes shelter with his nephew’s family, he’s met with enmity from his grandnephew, a teenager with suggested homosexual tendencies. It’s an interesting dynamic to explore and Sachs makes some appealing gestures against clarity - at least at first. The overarching sense that he’s muddling the narrative trajectory in order to find a measure of complexity is a resourceful attempt to adjust dramatic expectations. But as if he’s unsure of what he has on his hands, Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias resort to resolving any perceived sense of ambiguity with explanation.
While Love is Strange is not particularly sophisticated on the formal or thematic side, it is handled with a measure of nuance from its central performers. Molina and Lithgow are exceptional. Their exchanges have the sort of confident rapport of master actors who elevate everyone around them as a result. When working together, the whole production rises considerably. A scene that finds a despondent George heading out in the middle of the night during a storm to be with Ben may have come across as trite or melodramatic but instead is handled with naturalistic grace on behalf of both performers. The two are an elegant and at times heartbreaking pairing.
My reluctance toward Love is Strange likely has something to do with my general admonishment of the McCarey work that the film bases its structure on. While lauded as a classic, Make Way for Tomorrow has never been a film I’ve been especially high on; its melodramatic tendencies feeling too calculated and abrasive to connect with. The ugly melodrama of Make Way for Tomorrow rears their head in the many hostile displays of histrionics in the film, though neither Molina nor Lithgow resort to such lows. They make the film endlessly watchable - one would’ve hoped that their character’s halcyon relationship wasn’t compromised in the first place.