- Love Is Strange (2014) movie review: Featuring John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, and Marisa Tomei, Ira Sachs’ poignant gay romantic drama makes great use of cinema’s various crafts.
Love Is Strange movie review: Ira Sachs’ beautiful & beautifully acted gay romantic drama reaches for the deepest truths
Love Is Strange is beautiful in every way that a film can be beautiful, and unabashedly so. But despite its willingness to gild the lily for the love of aesthetic, ethereal beauty in all its forms, Love Is Strange is also a film that reaches for the truth – the deepest truths of what we often call “the human condition.”
For all these reasons I love Ira Sachs’ movie as much as it wishes we would love each other. I love the artistry of it. I love what it has to say and I love that it’s something seldom said. I love that it is forgiving.
Without hyperbole, I tell you that Love Is Strange is the stuff of Jean-Luc Godard (Notre Musique and In Praise of Love), Vittorio De Sica (Umberto D.), Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanors), and Ingmar Bergman’s reflection on the ironic circumstances we find ourselves in as we age (in his ever resonant Wild Strawberries).
Clearly, Bergman is a deeply planted influence on Sachs. And Love Is Strange is that good. I’m fairly sure most people – certainly those who’ve suffered from the many degradations of that “human condition” – will agree.
Love has many facets
Love Is Strange isn’t just about being old and in love, which is plenty of fodder for a well-made film. Instead, it’s about being old and in love and gay.
And it’s about gay marriage. It’s also about the vicissitudes of our universal human condition, particularly those that force apart a newly married gay couple after 35 years of being publicly together (and of being loved for their public togetherness).
Lastly, Love Is Strange is about a bit more: Joy, grief, family dynamics, youth culture, straight culture, gay culture.
Ira Sachs’ movie is all that, in addition to being beautiful in every way that a film can be.
Everything about Love Is Strange is “staged,” and wonderfully so. That includes the casting of two older straight men as two older, bordering on elderly, gay men – in itself as specific a choice as casting choices can be. After all, there are several older gay actors who might have been tapped for either of these roles; Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi come immediately to mind.
Director and co-screenwriter Ira Sachs is a gay man in his late 40s who has made films about and featuring gay men (e.g., The Delta, 1996; Keep the Lights On, 2012) as well as the mainstream 2007 drama Married Life, starring Chris Cooper and Pierce Brosnan; so, for Sachs, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a couple is a specific casting choice.
That’s not because these well-known actors cast a wide net, but because they are straight performers playing gay characters, something less threatening to those few stragglers on issues regarding homosexuality and, frankly, something more interesting to those who are not.
Even the characters’ professions are part of the “staging.” Ben (John Lithgow) is a fine landscape and portrait painter while George (Alfred Molina) is a choral choir instructor and piano teacher; the latter loses his job at the private Catholic school after he and Ben marry.
Besides, there’s some “staging” in regard to the aesthetics of the film: Its deliberate, overwhelming beauty features lingering Manhattan skylines and wide shots of artworks, for we are meant to see art being created.
Awards season contender?
Much of the Love Is Strange score is performed in real time, including a Chopin interlude played from beginning to end by one of George’s students, a little girl. He makes her play it twice.
No matter that her fingering is incorrect; no matter that the piece on the piano is not the piece we’re hearing. This and other moments of lily-gilding are artistic license at best, bad continuity at worst – and in no way detrimental to the film.
It’s all staged with precision and care by Sachs, cinematographer Christos Voudouris (Before Midnight), and production designer Amy Williams (Sachs’ collaborator on Keep the Lights On). Their work should be noted in the coming weeks as nominations for any number of awards are considered. This is also not hyperbole.
As a plus, everyone in Love Is Strange is at least good, including the young cast members, while several performances are especially good.
A particular standout is Marisa Tomei, who sidesteps the trap of the “movie shrew” into which lesser actresses would have fallen. And then we have John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, who are flawless: Perfect casting for the reasons noted above and pitch-perfect performances as well.
In the movie’s opening frames, we see Lithgow and Molina, two old white men, in bed together – something rarely seen in Hollywood movies – quietly waiting for their wedding day to begin. From these initial frames to the last scene, Lithgow and Molina are true in their portrayals of Ben and George.
In all, Love Is Strange is a wonderfully handcrafted film, which is to say, a film with a seldom-told story that is presented with great care.
The writing, credited to Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias (another Keep the Lights On collaborator), is sparse and thoughtful, while its viewpoints are clear and present, among them a deep consideration of each moment and what is meant by that particular moment.
In fact, Love Is Strange is a film that wants to win over not just its obvious audience, but all those aforementioned stragglers as well. But it wants to accomplish that in a fair, truthful manner.
Sachs’ patient and deliberate orchestration of the crafts of cinema is indeed impressive. It bears repeating one final time: Love Is Strange is beautiful in every way that a film can be beautiful. It’s neither maudlin nor saccharine. It’s without clichés. It lives in the “bitter and sweet” of the human condition. In sum, it’s real. And for that, Ira Sachs may take the fullest credit.
Love Is Strange (2014)
Director: Ira Sachs.
Screenplay: Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias.
Cast: John Lithgow. Alfred Molina. Marisa Tomei. Cheyenne Jackson. Manny Perez. Darren E. Burrows. Charlie Tahan. John Cullum.
“Love Is Strange (2014) Movie Review” endnotes
Marisa Tomei, John Lithgow, and Alfred Molina Love Is Strange movie images: Sony Pictures Classics.
“Love Is Strange Movie (2014): Touching Gay Drama” last updated in January 2022.