After you’ve seen the movie, come back and listen to Dana Stevens and June Thomas discuss Love Is Strange on the Spoiler Special:
The writer-director Ira Sachs makes movies that take place in the interstices of his characters’ lives. In films like Forty Shades of Blue and Keep the Lights On, he prefers to chronicle not our grand moments of heartbreak and struggle, but the countless ordinary days in between. Sachs’ new film, the quietly enchanting romantic drama Love Is Strange, does begin on a special occasion: the morning of the wedding day of George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow), a gay couple who have lived together for 39 years and are finally now able to legally solemnize their bond. But neither George nor Ben nor the filmmaker seem particularly concerned with the wedding itself. On their way to the ceremony, the two men bicker and fuss about traffic, seeming uncomfortable in their dressy suits; the wedding scene lasts just under a minute.
It isn’t until afterward, at a small gathering at George and Ben’s modest but genteelly furnished West Village apartment, that we get to observe the dynamic of this fractious but devoted couple and their extended relatives. George pounds out a romantic standard on the piano while Ben harmonizes lustily; when Ben’s niece-in-law, Kate (Marisa Tomei) raises a toast to the newlyweds as an inspiration in her own marriage, her affection seems both heartfelt and echoed by everyone else in the room. Now entering their seventh decade, Ben and George appear to have hit the jackpot: a happy marriage, a loving family, and (not to be scoffed at in New York City) a comfortable and affordable place in which to grow old together.
That is, until George, a music teacher at a Catholic school, loses his job. He’s been out of the closet at work for years, but at some point, the parish priest tells him with smarmy regret, rules are rules. The resulting loss of income forces the couple out of their apartment and onto the waiting list for middle-income or senior housing.
During this interim period—which threatens to stretch out into bureaucratic infinity—George and Ben decide to stay in two different places so as not to put out their loved ones too much. George will stay in a cramped apartment downstairs in their building. Ben, meanwhile, will move across town to live with his nephew Elliott (Darren E. Burrows), a work-obsessed filmmaker. Elliott’s wife Kate (Tomei)—she of the sincere wedding toast—is a novelist working from home, resentful about having been handed the bulk of the parenting burden by her often-absent husband. Their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan) is visibly unthrilled by the prospect of indefinitely sharing his bunk bed with a 71-year-old great-uncle, especially after his friend Vlad (Eric Tabach)—on whom Joey harbors a crush that may or may not be romantic—agrees to pose for one of Ben’s paintings. George and Ben are all too aware of, and embarrassed about, their importuning presence in their friends’ and families’ already crammed-to-bursting lives, but they’re not so selfless as to refrain from a little low-volume bitching. As George advises Ben during one of their daily phone conversations, “When you live with people, you know them better than you care to.”
It requires a little footwork to buy the premise that Ben and George’s two-apartment stopgap would last for as long as it does. Wouldn’t these beloved pillars of the community have multiple couch-surfing options, or at least be able to string together some catsitting gigs on Craigslist? But once you accept this obstacle thrown up between the star-crossed elderly lovers, Love Is Strange is a delight to watch unfold. It’s a delicate portrait of a long, loving relationship put to the test, and also a gentle comedy about the vicissitudes of real estate and the constant small humiliations of being a houseguest. In one of the best scenes, Tomei’s Kate sits at her computer trying to write while her uncle-in-law, sitting on the couch nearby, plies her with perfectly sweet and friendly but (for a writer) teeth-grindingly intrusive questions. She responds, at first kindly, then with increasing brusqueness. We keep expecting her to break down and snap at him, or him to suddenly realize he’s pestering her and excuse himself. Instead, the scene culminates in a punch line that’s all the funnier because of the admirable restraint and comic timing both actors have shown on the way there.
Sachs’ script, co-written with Mauricio Zacharias (who also co-wrote Keep the Lights On), is mostly uninterested in building up a traditional dramatic narrative, to the point that the plot can feel meandering and a little frictionless. But when longtime friends Molina and Lithgow are together on-screen, their characters’ evident exasperation and delight in each other are all the story we need. Much has been written about these two actors’ physical comfort with one another, as if to express surprise that two straight men would be able to so convincingly play two highly emo gay guys in love. But Lithgow and Molina play Ben and George with such depth, tenderness, and history that their affection for one another’s bodies (there’s no sex, but loads of snuggling) seems like a natural extension of their pleasure in being together.
Midway through their separation, George, sick of waiting up for his hard-partying cop neighbors (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez) to throw out their guests so he can finally go to bed, walks through the rain to Ben’s nephew’s place. Once there, George throws his arms around his much-missed husband and weeps, oblivious to the relatives awkwardly looking on. It’s that familiar rom-com last-act cliché—the lover showing up at the beloved’s door in the pouring rain and laying it all on the line—minus the happily-ever-after idealization or the young unwrinkled faces. Yet it’s one of the most romantic moments I’ve seen at the movies all year.