The day after the 2014 Oscar nominations were released I had a debate with a friend about whether or not Brokeback Mountain should have won best picture back in 2005. I've never been against the idea, but I've also never really been for it; I'm fine with other people liking movies that are that slowly paced, but they just aren't for me. However, my friend was arguing that Brokeback Mountain deserved to win based on it's historical significance alone. In her opinion, it was such a step forward for how Hollywood portrayed gay people that it should have been awarded Hollywood's most noticeable prize.
No one is arguing that Love is Strange should win best picture, but you could have a very similar debate about this movie. Love is Strange is about two gay men named Ben and George who have lived together comfortably for decades whose lives get disrupted after one of them loses his job. There's some tension in the movie, particularly between Ben and the family members he has to lean on for economic support, but overall it's a quiet affair with low stakes. Both Ben and George are sedate elderly men with refined tastes in painting and music - they aren't the sort of people who are lose their minds just because they've hit a bump in the road.
On the one hand, a movie that focuses on such mundane problems is not my cup of tea. Everyone in this movie is likeable, but none of the characters felt remarkable to me. That's not to say that the writing or the acting aren't good - they are - but it is to say that I'm generally uninterested in this sort of observational drama. On the other hand, I recognize that Love is Strange represents a milestone in gay rights, because after years and years of being caricatured as being drama queens, gay men are finally getting a movie where they are portrayed as everyday people. Love is Strange might not be exciting, but that's what makes it a notable - it's of a piece with the gay marriage debate, where the goal is to make homosexual love part of mainstream modern life, even though the mainstream modern life is actually pretty boring.
While Brokeback Mountain looms over Love Is Strange because it's a romance between gay men, the similarities actually go much deeper than that. Like Ang Lee's movie, Love is Strange's subtlety is both it's strongest and least impressive characteristic. Brokeback Mountain's long shots of sweeping Wyoming panoramas were a nice calm alternative to the hysteria of earlier gay-centric films like Cruising, but they also give the movie a glacial pace. Similarly, Ben and George's mixture of highbrow tastefulness and quiet despair is depicted tastefully, but also felt slightly generic to me. They seemed to be characters straight out of a New Yorker short story, which is both a compliment and a backhanded compliment at the same time. I understand why the New Yorker is popular, but it isn't interest me much.
The two films are also similar in that they both address different taboos. Because Brokeback Mountain was about cowboys, it directly challenged a very specific view of masculinity. Love is Strange isn't about two traditionally macho men, but it is about two old men, and you don't see that many portraits of senior citizens in Hollywood movies. John Lithgow, who plays Ben, has gone on the record as saying that one of the reasons why he was attracted to the part was because for the last few years he has mostly gotten offered background roles as someone's parent or grandparent, and as he saw his options as an actor diminish he began to realize just how under served the elderly community is by mainstream cinema. Brokeback Mountain broke more taboos, but both films are ultimately aiming to normalize homosexuality by showing how same sex love operates in much the same way that heterosexual love does.
At the end of the day, I think that Love is Strange is fine in much the same way that I thought that Brokeback Mountain was fine. It's well acted, it's compositions are painterly, and it's reserved tone will really speak to people that are tired of Hollywood's traditional take on romance, which generally involves a lot of sentimentality. I don't have much to say about the movie that's negative - but I will say it's kind of hard to get excited about a movie whose most startling attribute is that it's so mundane. Then again, what do I know? Brokeback Mountain didn't speak to me, but it clearly touched a nerve with a lot of other people, so it's possible that this movie could provide real catharsis for the right audience. Elderly opera goers aren't my cup of tea, but if that sounds great to you, then you might want to chug Love is Strange down.
(At the risk of sounding like a philistine I have to ask... people chug tea, right?)