Starring: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei
Directed by: Ira Sachs (“Keep the Lights On”)
Written by: Ira Sachs (“Keep the Lights On”) and Mauricio Zacharias (“Keep the Lights On”)
It’s difficult not to find “Love is Strange” likeable despite its many flaws. Anchored by moving and understated performances by Oscar nominee John Lithgow (“Terms of Endearment”) and Alfred Molina (“Frida”), it’s the kind of film that demands respect, especially since it’s filling a void in LGBT cinema where stories tend to be more about a younger generation and their struggles to find or confront their sexual identity. When is the last time you saw a love story between two men around the age of 65-70? Unless we’re talking about smaller documentaries like “Before You Know It,” “Gen Silent,” or “88 Years in the Closet,” it’s extremely rare. Even when actor Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for playing a gay octogenarian in the 2010 comedy/drama “Beginners,” the lover he chose was much younger. With that said, “Love is Strange” breaks some important barriers, but not without writing itself into some messy scenarios that feel way more complicated than they had to be.
The film opens with Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina), two older gentlemen dressed to the nines, walking through the streets of Manhattan as if they were going to a nearby café to have a cup of coffee like it was any other morning. This is far from any other morning, however. This is Ben and George’s wedding day. After a nearly 40-year relationship, the couple has decided to make it official. Their joy is short-lived, however, when George, a music teacher at an Archdiocese-run school, is fired from his position since his marriage violates the Christian Witness Statement he signed when he was hired. Now on an extremely fixed income, Ben and George are forced to sell their apartment and temporarily sleep under different roofs until they can find a new home (none of their family or friends who live in the city can accommodate both men, a plot point that is hard to swallow, but important to the overall narrative). With Ben staying with his nephew and his family (Marisa Tomei plays the overly annoyed wife) and George staying with younger gay friends, the two men must do something they’ve never had to do during their entire relationship: live apart.
“Love is Strange” is best when Lithgow and Molina share the screen. Of course, this only takes place a handful of times during the film since their situation keeps them separated. When the two talk about their lives and the sometimes painful past, it’s a beautiful way to show just how comfortable and sensible 40 years of companionship has molded their relationship. Ben and George have known for a long time that they work better as a couple. Director/co-writer Ira Sachs (“Keep the Lights On”) makes sure audiences can feel that security and compassion when they interact.
Where “Love is Strange” struggles is in the secondary family story it tries so desperately to fit into Ben and George’s difficult circumstance. It’s especially true with Lithgow who somehow ends up becoming a burden on his nephew’s wife and their teenage son. The fact that everyone gets so aggravated so quickly rings immensely false. It’s almost as if Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias felt they had to impose some sort of conflict to make the film find another emotional layer it could’ve easily done without (or done without the exaggeration).
Lithgow and Molina’s chemistry, however, is all the emotion “Love is Strange” needs. The deeper Sachs and Zacharias could’ve delved into that touching story and focused more on the quieter moments, the more the film would’ve felt true to form.