“Love is Strange” is a small intimate drama about two good people who have loved and lived with each other for almost 40 years and then suddenly have to deal with a trouble suddenly coming into their happy life. As observing how they try to cope with the resulting inconvenience, the movie gives a warm, sensitive portrayal of one long, enduring human relationship, and it is quite touching to see more of how deep their mutual love and understanding are.
At the beginning, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), an aging gay couple living in Manhattan, are about to begin a very special day for both of them. Thanks to the recent legalization of gay marriage in US, they are going to get married today, and we soon see their private wedding ceremony where many of their close friends and relatives are happy to see their long relationship getting officially recognized at last.
But then they come across a serious problem not long after their wedding day. George has worked as the music teacher of a local Catholic school and everybody in the school knows well of his relationship with Ben, but Father Raymond (John Cullum), the principle of the school, notifies that Georges has to be fired just because of his wedding. Although he does not want to fire George, he received an order from the archdiocese, and both George and Father Raymond see that there is nothing they can do about it at present.
Because their life has depended on George’s salary during recent years (Ben was a painter, but he has been retired for a while), they have to move out of their dear apartment, and, after having some talk with their friends and Ben’s nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), Ben and George decide that they should live separately for a while until they find a new apartment they can afford. Ben is going to stay at Elliot’s apartment, and George is going to be the guest of Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez), another gay couple in their apartment building.
Although they initially thought it would be just temporary, this separation period becomes longer as Ben and George keep looking for any good apartment in New York without much success. They manage to sell their apartment, but they get less money than expected, and that makes it all the more difficult to find a new place both suitable and affordable for them. In addition, they begin to miss each other more every night, and they also feel more uncomfortable in their respective staying places as becoming more conscious of their current homeless state.
Ben and George’s hard situation may remind you of Yasujirō Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953) or Leo McCarey’s “Make Way for Tomorrow” (1937), two classic films which depict generation gap mainly from the viewpoint of their aging characters. Ben finds himself becoming a sort of unwelcomed father-in-law to Elliot’s writer wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) despite good intentions on both sides, and he is not exactly on good terms with Elliot’s adolescent son Joy (Charlie Tahan) either, a smart but problematic kid who is not very pleased about sharing his bedroom with Ben. While George is gladly welcomed by Ted and Roberto, the generation gap between him and his generous young neighbours is apparent, and George feels lonelier even when he is surrounded by many people during the occasional evening parties at Ted and Roberto’s apartment.
The director Ira Sachs, who wrote the screenplay with Mauricio Zacharias, lets his main characters’ situation roll by itself without forcing it into contrived plot. The loose narrative of the film provides some space for its supporting characters, and Marisa Tomei is excellent as a woman who slowly becomes frustrated with her difficult circumstance in spite of her good will. Kate does care about her husband’s dear uncle, but she has a work to do at her home beside paying attention to her son and his recent friend, and Ben looks more like another burden in her view while her husband is mostly absent due to his latest project. The discord around their household is further increased by Joey’s trouble at his school, and then there is a very uncomfortable scene in which Ben is helpless and embarrassed in front of a family conflict erupted on the dinner table.
Nevertheless, the tone of the film remains gentle and contemplative, and it is effortlessly maintained by a beautifully nuanced duo performance from two veteran character actors with whom I have been familiar for many years. After he gave me a big impression through his terrific performance in Brian De Palma’s “Raising Caine” (1992) when I was 13, John Lithgow became one of my favorite actors, and then I watched more of this wonderful actor through many other movies and, of course, that absolutely hilarious TV comedy series “3rd Rock from the Sun”. Although I came to recognize Alfred Molina much later, this equally talented actor has also been someone interesting to watch on the screen, and some of you may be surprised to learn that this actor has done a lot more than his memorable villainous turn in “Spider-man 2” (2004) during his long career (he was that treacherous guide during the opening sequence of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), by the way).
What Lithgow and Molina achieves in “Love is Strange” is so subtle and so delicate that I am afraid my feeble words will not do enough justice to their commendable work in the film. Right from the tentative opening scene of the film, they embody not only their respective characters but also the long relationship between them, and we can sense two different individuals who have probably gone through many good or bad times together with love and understanding. Lithgow and Molina have a quiet tentative scene when their characters finally get a small chance to sleep together later in the story, and we simply see two human beings happy to spend night with each other as before.
Sachs’ previous work “Keep the Lights On” (2012), another sensitive tale of a homosexual relationship, reminded me of how gay characters in movies have relatively become more usual than before in these days, and the same thing can be said about “Love is Strange”, whose poignancy has grown on me after its final scene. Its details are specific, but its human matters are something universal we can easily relate to, and Lithgow and Molina give us two real human beings to remember as a loving couple.