In 1937, Paramount Pictures released “Make Way for Tomorrow,” a drama that documentarian Errol Morris once declared “the most depressing movie ever made, providing reassurance that everything will definitely end badly.” In it, an elderly couple (Victor Young, Beulah Bondi), lose their home to foreclosure and are forced to split up, because none of their many children will take both parents in at the same time. The film’s director Leo McCarey, a.k.a Mr. Versatility, had choreographed the chaos of the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup,” and won an Oscar for “The Awful Truth.” But he considered “Make Way for Tomorrow” the best movie he ever made.
Ira Sachs, the Sundance-award-winning filmmaker of such films as “Forty Shades of Blue” and “Married Life,” has not, to our knowledge, declared his new film—“Love Is Strange”—to be a remake of McCarey’s. But essentially it is, albeit with a few very significant alterations.
The story, written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, involves two gentlemen of a certain age, Ben (John Lithgow), a painter who wears rumpled seersucker, and George (Alfred Molina), who wears two-toned dress shirts and creases like razors. Despite the temperamental contrast made evident by their sartorial choices, they have been together for 20 years, love each other, and, with the changing of New York law regarding gay marriage, decide to wed.
The ceremony is an al fresco celebration of undying devotion; the reception, in a realistically sized Manhattan apartment (meaning it’s crowded), involves the singing of show tunes by people pretending to play the piano.
Whereas McCarey’s movie was a parable about a poverty of charity among ungrateful children, Sachs’ target is most pointedly the Catholic Church. George is a music teacher, a 12-year veteran of a parochial high school where the children wear uniforms and the choir sounds like Anonymous 4. George’s fatal mistake has been candor: He’s announced to his colleagues that he and Ben are planning the wedding, so word has gotten back to the unnamed “Archbishop.” The school’s headmaster, Father Raymond (John Collum), has no alternative but to let George go.
And why does he have no alternative? That will be a matter of debate, but the result of his action means George and Ben having to sell their home, split up, test the patience of the friends with whom they move in and become representative of a society in which even the moderately well-fixed seem to be one missed paycheck away from utter destitution.
There are plenty of reasons not to take “Love Is Strange” very seriously, including the various characters’ erratic emotional responses to various situations, their lack of plausible development and some very suspect dialogue. When Ben moves in with his nephew Elliott, wife Kate and their son, Joey (Darren E. Burrows, Marisa Tomei, Charlie Tahan), there’s an understandable friction among the family in having their space invaded—one dryly humorous scene involves Ben cluelessly chattering on to Kate while she’s trying to write her novel (viewers will be wondering why doesn’t she gently tell Ben to shut up, especially when he says that he himself can’t work with people around). But nephew Joey’s response is close to hysterical, a non-incremental ascent into loathing of his uncle that can’t be chalked up to adolescent irrationality, but rather the screenwriters’ desire to drive matters along despite dramaturgical speed bumps.
But back to the church. The situation George finds himself is a knotty one, and one that will elicit in Sachs’s audience a variety of perhaps contradictory responses, not all of them intended. As Father Raymond unctuously explains to his soon-to-be-ex-employee, George signed a contract when he joined the school to abide by the teachings of Rome, rather than the legislature of New York State. The implication is that if George had simply shut up about the wedding, everyone would have been able to look the other way, and the status quo would have been undisturbed. Yes, it would have required a certain degree of dishonesty on both their parts. But the viewer can’t help rolling the alternative scenaria around in his/her mind, especially as Father Raymond professes no personal sense of outrage at the gay marriage of one of his subordinates.
And then, he’s cast as the villain, in no uncertain terms: “George, let’s pray,” he says, having in effect ruined the life of a man who considered him a friend. “It’s important you don’t question your faith.” George’s response is that he’d rather pray alone. Prayer equals hypocrisy in this particular moment, a moment at which “Love Is Strange” becomes less about love than a clumsy political agenda.
Sachs’ real enemy is words. There are two scenes in “Love Is Strange” that work wonderfully well, and both are silent, save for the blessed Frederic, who provides most of the movie’s soundtrack. One involves Ben, who escapes to the roof of Elliott and Kate’s apartment to make his paintings, one of which is a portrait of Joey’s friend, Vlad (Eric Tabach). The picture that might be construed as vaguely homoerotic if you wanted to construe it that way, which Joey does, so he can continue his ongoing tantrum about Uncle Ben. The intense friendship between Joey and Vlad seems to be intended by Sachs to dramatize adolescent boys at a crossroads of sexual orientation, which seems strange for a director whose gayness has been a big large part of both his film projects and public persona. How this uncertainty is resolved becomes clear in the film’s final moments, a dreamy, elegiac sequence involving city streets, skateboards and more Frederic, and signifies the director’s connection to his two principals, Ben and George. Sachs is a profoundly visual artist with a musical soul. It’s the basic storytelling that gets in his way.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: Aug. 25, 2014
An earlier version of this article misidentified the musician who provides most of the movie's soundtrack. It is Frederic, not Franz Chopin.