Directed by: Ira Sachs.
Written by: Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias.
Starring: John Lithgow (Ben), Alfred Molina (George), Darren E. Burrows (Elliot), Marisa Tomei (Kate), Charlie Tahan (Joey), Harriet Sansom Harris (Honey), Cheyenne Jackson (Ted), Manny Perez (Roberto), Christina Kirk (Mindy), John Cullum (Father Raymond), Eric Tabach (Vlad).
Love is Strange is beautiful, sensitive film – one that at first seems like it could be preachy, message film, but ends up being much smarter than that. It stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as Ben and George – a couple who have been together for nearly 40 years, and as the film opens are finally about to get married. It is a lovely, small, quiet ceremony and reception – surrounded by family and friends, all of whom love both Ben and George, and the feeling is reciprocated. But it isn’t long before George is called into his boss office – the Catholic School where he works has long since known he was gay – and do the kids he teaches, and their parents, and no one cares. But now that George has gotten married – world leaked to the Archdiocese, and George loses his job. The two don’t have a lot of money – and are forced to rely on the kindness of their friends and family for a place to stay, as they figure out what their next step should be.
The movie will remind cinephiles of two of the best films ever made – Yasajiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), and the film that inspired that one, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) – more than later than the former. As in that film, the central couple has to be split up, and live in different places while they try to find a place for them together. Ben moves in with his nephew, Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan) – who isn’t happy that he has to share his room with a 70 year old gay man. George moves in with the pair of gay cops who lived beneath Ben and George’s old apartment – but while they are well meaning, they are also several decades younger that George, given to all night parities, and constant visitors – when all George wants is some peace and quiet.
Co-written and directed by Ira Sachs, the film wears its influences on it sleeve – but slowly becomes its own movie as it moves along. The movie keeps its central couple apart for the majority of the film – which works well for it. The film contrasts their ease with other in that first sequence – on their wedding day, and a closing sequence, where the pair reunite for a night out on the town, where they reminisce about their life together (which sounds like it was as idyllic as it seemed) – with the scenes where the couple have been separated, which are much more awkward – especially the scenes with Ben and his family. While the film clearly feels a deep sympathy for Ben – essentially losing his apartment and his husband in one foul swoop in his later years, it also acknowledges just how annoying he can be those around him, even when he doesn’t realize it. He is trying to be friendly of course – but a teenage boy doesn’t want an elderly relative living with them at all, and Marisa Tomei’s Kate is a writer, trying to work from home, who bends over backwards to be polite – but eventually cannot take it anymore.
The two lead performances are both excellent – truly among the best performances in the careers of Lithgow and Molina. Neither actor is one that I normally associate with subtlety – they both go gloriously over the top more often than not. Here though, they underplay their characters – especially when they are together, where the whole of their relationship is shown in just body language. The film never really pushes for false drama, and doesn’t really force these characters into a plot of any real consequence. While the film certainly has a message – a sad one, about how no matter how accepting most are of gay marriage, it still needs to be better – but the film doesn’t beat you over the head with it, preferring instead of take a subtler route. And by the end of the movie, the film doesn’t even feel like a message movie at all – but something all the more heartfelt – and that’s because that is exactly what it has become.