John Lithgow and Alfred Molina top line this film, a sensitive study of gay commitment. The two cinema veterans deliver some of the best performances of their careers, applauded in upbeat critical notices. Both actors and the film itself could conceivably end up winning statues in the upcoming awards hunt.
Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been together for 39 years, and taking advantage of New York State’s new same sex marriage laws have just tied the knot surrounded by family, friends and well-wishers, but it turns out to be one with consequences causing unexpected late-life crises in their lives. Disruption ensues after the Catholic school where George has taught music for years fires him. With his salary, they can’t afford to keep their cozy, beautifully furnished Manhattan condo, so the couple must sell their apartment and – victims of the city’s relentless real estate market – temporarily live apart until they can find an affordable new home.
George moves in downstairs with two gay cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), but he’s uncomfortable as their partying makes him feel like an alien. Ben, a painter, lands in Brooklyn, with his nephew (Darren Burrows), his nephew’s wife (Marisa Tomei) and their temperamental teenage son (Charlie Tahan) who isn’t happy to be sharing his bunk bed, a situation that weighs heavily on all involved.
The film is directed by Ira Sachs whose credentials list film festival recognition (Berlin 2012, Sundance 2005). He also co-wrote the script, the characters fortified by Sachs’s 25 years as a New Yorker. His husband, painter Boris Torres, created the paintings for the film, thereby adding bitter sweetness to the plot. Sachs, one of the most acute cinematic observers of humanity these days, delivers an uncompromising yet accessible slice-of-life expression that is most perceptive suggesting a personal statement by the director. The lightness and sorrows of this modern-day love story is also poignantly highlighted by a Chopin piano score.
There’s no grand drama here, just a steady trickle of tragic irony, a quiet comedy of manners of two men officially committed to share their lives but can’t afford to share a bed. The result is a pleasing mix of buoyancy and solemnity that’s amusing and sad. Another movie might have found an occasion for some kind of grandstanding about injustice. But Sachs doesn’t follow that path. He watches as we look over his shoulder. Though Sachs has made the kind of adult drama that’s comfortable “Love Is Strange” isn’t perfect. The supporting characters could have been expanded with more time to connect, in part because the actors playing them (including Eric Tabach, Christina Kirk, and Harriet Sansom Harris) are so good. The movie feels complete well before it actually ends. However the legal implications of George’s dismissal by the school board, as well as the lack of response from the department of housing for new accommodation, are a plot puzzle.
The story is smart and clear-eyed with gentle conflicts close to a family drama. It’s personal in the manner of anyone who’s eager for love but hasn’t sufficiently planned for life standing in the way. The same-sex theme may be off-putting for some, but the enlightened tolerant script is the key. With public support for gay marriage gaining momentum, and marriage equality garnering headlines, this film seems like a flag waver for the cause. Actor Lithgow says, “Half the world is going to love this, the other half needs to see it.” Director Sachs responds, “I cast two of the best actors of their generation who responded emotionally to the story that was told.” Here, I agree, they are at the peak of their form.
“Love Is Strange” is not so much about love as it is about the threat of economic, social and emotional trauma in modern urban life. Time was when it would have been labeled a “kitchen sink drama.” One might suspect a 90-minute sermon on gay rights, but that’s far off base, it’s a beautifully observed everyday-folks slice-of-life for these so-called enlightened times. Yes, the title accurately observes the truth that love is indeed strange, but it’s also a sweet, understated and ultimately disturbing film for those who are in the mood to care about others. Though gentle and sad, at times a little too downbeat, the film ends on a note of hope as quiet and simple as the melancholy that preceded it.
There’s no intended discrimination. The film plots our decline when we no longer have security, the impositions on family that strain relationships, and the nature of love tested by separation. One need not be of an alternate sexual makeup to see yourself as one of these characters. There’s an irony to the title. Love isn’t strange, after all. It’s something for which we all hope, to which we’re all entitled, and which almost all of us have the power to achieve.
“Love Is Strange” is currently showing in select markets.