There are no opening credits in Ira Sachs’ new film, Love Is Strange; we just get to it. An older man who we quickly recognize as John Lithgow wakes up in the morning, crawls out of bed, takes a dutiful, glum shower, and begins what seems like an ordinary day.
He can’t find his glasses, which bothers him greatly, and by the reaction of his partner, played by Alfred Molina, this isn’t the first time he’s misplaced them, or the first time he’s fretted over nothing. It’s readily apparent that we’re watching two men who know each other’s peccadillos better than they know their own shoe sizes.
Alas, this is not an ordinary day, as we soon discern from their attire — anachronistic pinstriped suits festooned with floral brooches, the sort of raiment one only dons for special occasions. Indeed, it is their wedding day, an intimate outdoor ceremony followed by music and wine and friends and family and, soon after that, injustice and literal — though not emotional — separation, which is where the story of Love Is Strange really begins.
Molina plays George, a music teacher at a New York City Catholic school who is promptly dismissed by the archdiocese when news of his marriage is made public. Lithgow’s Ben is a 71-year-old amateur painter living off a pension. Their love for one another is genuine and unguarded, and superbly portrayed: It’s easy to believe that Lithgow and Molina have, indeed, shared the same bed sheets and head spaces for 40 years, just like their characters.
But with George unemployed, both have lost their health insurance, their apartment, and their only source of significant income, prompting them to beg friends and relatives for temporary housing. Nobody’s apartment is big enough to take in both men, so Ben shares a bunkbed with the teenage boy of his workaholic filmmaker nephew, and George crashes on the sofa of a pair of hard-partying gay cops.
As nice as both houseguests are, the arrangement leads to inevitably strained relationships for all involved, and Sachs, the filmmaker behind such spellbinding character studies as Forty Shades of Blue and Keep the Lights On, brings his trademark sensitivity and nuance to the complex situation. “Sometimes when you live with people, you know them better than you care to,” Ben tells his husband over the phone, an observation of profound simplicity that encapsulates this wondrous movie.
Anyone who has ever taken in an unwanted houseguest will relate to the inherent disruption that person’s presence causes on the family dynamic — even when they’re as sweet as Ben, who chats away with his nephew’s wife Kate (a terrific Marisa Tomei) while she’s trying to work from home, obliviously testing her bounteous reservoirs of patience. How does one politely silence such a genial burden? And to what degree has Ben’s extended stay also affected the gnawing strife between Kate’s son and his parents?
There isn’t a single emotional misstep in Love Is Strange, nary a studio concession in sight. In showing how one cowardly turn of events can uproot a once-stable family unit, Sachs and his co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias draw beautifully from life’s uncomfortable surprises, turning the specific into the universal and the familiar into the revelatory.
If this film winds up on the special interest “shelf” of today’s e-video stores, that would be a shame, because it’s not a film about gay people. It’s just a movie about people, who are so recognizable it’s painful, or funny, or both at the same time. It’s a rare and exquisite jewel, the cinematic equivalent of the Chopin that floods the soundtrack, thanks to George’s private piano lessons: a poetic composition free of embellishment.
LOVE IS STRANGE. Director: Ira Sachs; Cast: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Cheyenne Jackson, Charlie Tahan, Darren Burrows, Christian Coulson; Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics; Rating: R; Opens Friday at Movies of Delray; Cinemark Palace, Regal Shadowood and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton; the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale; Cinemark Paradise in Davie; and Regal South Beach in Miami Beach.