The New York City skyline is one of the tired titans of American imagery. To put it more charitably, it’s awfully difficult to fill a movie with classic images of Gotham and finish with something original and interesting. In Ira Sachs‘s newest feature, Love Is Strange, one of his characters goes to the trouble of actually painting the view of Manhattan from a Brooklyn roof. This particular canvas becomes one of the most emotionally charged symbols of the film. In the hands of a less assured director, it would be entirely ponderous.
Yet Sachs knows his way around the city, so to speak. His last feature, Keep the Lights On, charted the heartbreaking decline of a relationship against the backdrop of a hazy metropolis. Love Is Strange, on the other hand, finds a much clearer and brighter source of light. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) are an aging couple finally, legally, getting married after almost 40 years. The film begins with their wedding, a lovely outdoor affair followed by a reception in their apartment. There Sachs introduces all of the supporting players, including an adoring novelist niece named Kate (Marisa Tomei) and some neighborly gay policemen (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez).
The party, complete with champagne and a sing-a-long at the piano, feels like something out of an old Woody Allen family drama. There’s the weird relative from the uninhabitable far north (Poughkeepsie) who goes to a chromotherapist and sits under green-tinted light to calm her nerves. Everyone who isn’t a gay cop has an Allen-esque profession, including a novelist and an anthropologist. The policemen, meanwhile, add some cultural comic relief in the form of loud parties and Dungeons and Dragons. This is a New York of the imagination, which as it turns out is the best way to replicate the lived experience of New York the real place.
Ben, incidentally, is the aforementioned painter. George is a music teacher at a Catholic high school, and the main conflict of the film arrives when he is unceremoniously fired from his job for daring to have a gay wedding. The newlyweds are forced to sell their apartment, but can’t find a new place fast enough. George takes refuge with the cops downstairs, while Ben heads to Brooklyn to bunk with Kate, her husband and her son Joey (Charlie Tahan). The latter arrangement births the best drama, as 71-year old Ben both clashes and bonds with his adolescent grandnephew.
Brooklyn is also, as it turns out, an ideal place for Sachs’s most interesting visual ideas. He is absolutely fascinated by the size of this outer borough apartment, often shooting as much of a room as possible. The result is a beautiful correlation between light and space that allows remarkable emotional clarity. If there is a predominant aesthetic idea here, it is elongation. Sachs uses the music of Chopin better than any filmmaker in ages. Entire scenes are built up from the languorous piano melodies of the Polish composer, and then expanded through physical space. A montage of scenes of the city from up on the roof seems to have more to say than most New York City pastiches. Apartments grow and shrink along with the sounds. A particularly stunning moment occurs when George writes a letter to the parents of his former students, images of the school building woven seamlessly into a music lesson. Sachs uses these classic little works of classical music, so often employed solely for emotional impact, to stop and extend time.
The highs of Love Is Strange, therefore, are quite high. It shines when bringing a new, warm light to things we have seen and heard before, whether they be a row of skyscrapers or a familiar berceuse. Its low points, it follows, are those when the script temporarily brushes against a cliche. Some of Joey’s “surly teenager” story line is a bit dull, and a third act attempt to jazz it up feels false. There are also odd moments of declamation, as if the film were trying to hard to posture for a general audience. The apartment hunt itself is a bit strained, and a conversation forced into the last act feels a bit too much like a primer on the basics of gay relationships for the unfamiliar.
Do these hiccups deserve to be brushed off in light of the novelty of this narrative, a rare film that addresses gay men over the age of 50? Perhaps, though probably not. Yet the truth of these characters brought out by Lithgow and Molina’s entirely comfortable depth and easy chemistry does smooth over many of the bumps. This is a remarkable little film, a much-needed love story bathed in light.
The Upside: Love Is Strange is a wonderfully assured romance, a collection of wonderful performances led through a handful of truly beautiful domestic scenes.
The Downside: Some of the script feels a bit too familiar, occasionally troubled by dialogue that
On the Side: This is cinematographer Christos Voudouris’s first production outside of Greece. His first English-language film was last year’s Before Midnight.
Editor’s note: Our review originally ran during this year’s Tribeca Film Fest, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release.