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Review: Love is Strange (2014)

Love is Strange (2014)

Directed by: Ira Sachs

Premise: Two elderly gay men (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) get married. The breadwinner of the couple subsequently loses his job and they must find a new and affordable living situation.

What Works: Love is Strange is an attempt to tell a story about love that is quietly subversive. For one, the story begins with a wedding. For most romantic movies the wedding is the culmination of the relationship, after which the couple lives happily ever after. Even most wedding-based comedies like Wedding Crashers reinforce that supposition. In Love is Strange, the wedding instigates the conflict. The leads of this film are two men of retirement age who decide to tie the knot. All goes well until the local Catholic diocese finds out about it and fires Alfred Molina’s character from his teaching post at a private school. That is the other subversive aspect of Love is Strange. A lot of movies about gay characters tend to take place in earlier decades and portray overt acts of violence and discrimination against them. Love is Strange takes place in contemporary New York where homosexuality is much more tolerated than it was in the past. The firing of the teacher is an example of contemporary discrimination and the film reminds viewers of the ways in which homosexuals and others still lack equal protection under the law despite the sunnier depiction of gay life in television sitcoms like Modern Family. Love is Strange is primarily a movie about its characters, as opposed to it plot, and the film benefits from the casting of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in the lead roles. The relationship between them is engaging and they make a credible couple; Molina and Lithgow convincingly play two people who have been together for a long time and they are able to make the viewer want to see them end up together. After Molina’s character is fired, he lives with friends while Lithgow’s character goes to live with his nephew’s family. This begins the real conflict of the film, in which Molina attempts to cohabitate among a younger crowd and Lithgow must integrate into a family that has its own issues and rhythms. The strain put on everyone is very real and that is where Love is Strange really succeeds. It’s a drama that has complex characters struggling to love each other in a situation that makes it difficult. In that respect, Love is Strange is not really a “gay movie”—whatever that might mean—but a story about the struggle to maintain love in the face of life’s complexities. 

What Doesn’t: Love is Strange sails on the likability of its stars. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are fun to watch and the supporting cast is full of interesting and complex characters but the story comes up a little short. The movie invokes a lot of ideas but it does not entirely follow through with them. The key example of that is the initial incident of the story. Alfred Molina’s character loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school specifically because of his nuptials. By starting the story that way, the moviemakers are picking a fight but that conflict isn’t pursued. The filmmakers are clearly more interested in the personal than in the political but it is a little disappointing to see it sidestepped so quickly. As a study of these characters and their relationships, Love is Strange generally works but the ending is rushed through. Without giving too much away, the filmmakers of Love is Strange give in to what’s become a cliché in resolving stories about homosexual characters from Philadelphia to Boys Don’t Cry to Brokeback Mountain. It’s too bad since other aspects of the movie attempt to break free from some of the clichéd depictions of gay life.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, interviews, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Love is Strange is a small movie that’s extremely well-acted and credibly explores the ups and downs of love. It’s ultimately a story about commitment and the struggle to maintain it.

Episode: #529 (February 15, 2015)