There were two mild yet immediate pangs of disappointment after “Love is Strange” was over, the first being that Ira Sachs’ magnificent new film had to end at all and the second concerning how many great onscreen couples we’ve been deprived of when healthy gay relationships were considered off-limits to filmmakers. What if we could’ve had Rock Hudson romancing Kirk Douglas or Doris Day being wooed by Shirley Maclaine? Even on paper, the pairing in “Love is Strange” of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina just seems right and in practice, it’s so well-oiled that you’d think films like this have been made for years, except they haven’t. And while future generations may wonder what the big deal is, Sachs has made such a simple, lovely romance, “Love is Strange” will stand the test of time in other ways.
That Lithgow and Molina’s chemistry together as Ben and George, respectively, is so palpable becomes crucial to the film not in believing them when you see them together, but because they spend so much of the film apart. With the legalization of gay marriage, the two have decided to put it in writing, though as the film’s opening sequence detailing their daily routine implies when the time comes, it is a day like any other. Yet for George, who teaches music at a Catholic school where his sexual orientation has been quietly accepted for years, making their matrimony official in the eyes of the law means his dismissal, and with it, the health care provided by the school. Soon, he and Ben can no longer afford their apartment, requiring Ben to move in with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and the their son Joey (Charlie Tahan) while George must do the same with his cousin Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) as they look for another permanent residence.
For Sachs, who along with co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, delved so feverishly into what it meant to be young and gay in his last film “Keep the Lights On” has picked up all the nuances of the opposite end of the spectrum, somehow able to cinematically convey the small, cumulative systemic injustices that continue to marginalize the gay community, even in an era where equality is now the law of the land. However, regardless of sexual orientation, the film resonates as it watches the ripple effect Ben and George’s displacement has on both the couple and those that put them up, with Tomei’s stay-at-home writer becoming particularly frustrated taking care of Ben, whose mind begins to deteriorate. As dire as things become, there’s an elegance to the way it all unfolds with cinematographer Christos Voudouris making New York feel as loosely comfortable as he made Greece appear in “Before Midnight” and Sachs using nothing more than the simple chord progressions of Chopin for the film’s score.
There are places where the film does strain to make a point, typically about the generation gap between the 39-year-old couple and their younger progeny. In the moments when Ted’s house parties begin to bother George or Ben irks Joey by asking his best friend Vlad (Eric Tabach) to appear in one of his paintings, the film becomes a little less graceful in its storytelling, yet these minor infractions are often smoothed over by the performances, which are almost all note perfect across the board. Besides Molina and Lithgow, it’s a particular pleasure to see Sachs reunite with his “Forty Shades of Blue” star Darren Burrows, who brings a gravitas to the put-upon Elliot that not many others would likely manage. Then again, Sachs, a most compassionate filmmaker, instills a dignity in all his characters, even as some reach their most vulnerable states, making “Love is Strange” as strong as it is delicate and a beauty to behold.
“Love is Strange” is now open in Los Angeles at the Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood and New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, the Angelika Film Center and the Chelsea Cinemas. It will expand on August 29th. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.