There are few things harder to convey than a well loved, lived in marriage and how a couple’s actions inform the family and friends they surround themselves with. Queer filmmaking maestro Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On, Married Life) has even previously looked at the delicate and sometimes messy art of coupling and uncoupling, but never on quite the emotionally epic scale that he employs for the resplendent and achingly humane Love is Strange. It’s one of the best pictures of marriage, economic collapse, the nature of friendship, and love that I have seen in years bolstered by a pair of exceptional performances from already notably exceptional leading men.
After 39 years as a couple, many of them living together in a quaint Manhattan apartment, spottily employed painter Ben (John Lithgow) and choir director George (Alfred Molina) have finally decided to take advantage of New York’s new gay marriage laws and tie the knot. It’s a beautiful moment in their lives and one they could have only dreamed about decades into their relationship, but that’s when the harsh realities of married life begin to take hold.
They now find themselves uneasily in a new kind of tax bracket that they never really expected, and thanks to the NYC real estate boom, their once affordable home has now become something they can’t afford. Ben hardly ever works in his now advanced age and George has recently lost his job thanks to his Catholic Church bosses suddenly taking offence to his sexual orientation after years of not having a problem. Without much energy left to fight, the couple agrees to leave their home and crash with friends for a while.
The set-up is heartbreaking, yet eminently believable. The economics of New York living and the struggles of being a same sex couple are never discussed with “on the nose” platitudes or sermonizing. The situation that Ben and George find themselves in could happen to anyone at any point in their lives, and the fact that they have managed to survive for so long on their own and are now forced into relying on the help of others is the truly heartbreaking thrust of the story.
The dynamic between Ben and George has been lovingly created down to the finest detail by screenwriters Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias. We don’t need to have the love these two people have for each other explained to us, because we as an audience can see it immediately. The conversations between them have a built in give and take that only comes from people that have established such a rapport that they can (but won’t) finish each other’s sentences. There’s a sort of happy exasperation between the pair even in the darkest of moments. Sachs, in probably the most openly romantic and heartwarming sentiment in any film this year, wants to make viewers believe that things will be okay. Nothing here feels manufactured, and all of it feels painfully and lovingly real, unspoiled by Hollywood clichés or dumbed down for audiences who think escapism means stopping the show every few moments for grand, empty gestures.
The only thing Sachs really needs outside of his own material (and some stunning cinematography from Before Midnight and Alps lenser Christos Voudouris) is a pair of professionals capable of delivering such effortless and nuanced performances, and Lithgow and Molina are the perfect people for the task. In their capable hands, the film goes from being something special to something that shouldn’t be missed. Both men are kind and somewhat cranky, but they also have their own unique personality traits.
Lithgow’s Ben seems to be both more loving and more stubborn at the same time. He’s a man capable of experiencing great joy and sadness at the same time, including a memorably bittersweet conversation about homesickness. Molina’s George is a bit more of a pragmatic and stable person, but also kind of a pushover. Both men are capable of picking up on and noting the flaws in the other and loving each other in spite of them. That’s almost impossible to convey on screen. Usually screenwriters and actors will result to shorthanded grandstanding to illustrate that neither member in a relationship is a perfect person, but here there’s an underlying acceptance conveyed by both leads that makes the audience love them in spite of their less desirable traits. They are good people in a bad situation.
That sentiment extends to the supporting cast of players who take Ben and George in when they’re forced to part ways. Ben goes to live with his videographer nephew (Darren E. Burrows), his somewhat annoyed novelist wife (Marissa Tomei, in the best role she has been offered in decades), and their awkwardly emotional teenage son (Charlie Tahan). They want to help, but everyone (especially the wife who just wants to be left alone even by her family) feels cramped and overtaxed. George takes up with a pair of gay NYPD officers (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez) who are too young and vibrant for George to keep up with.
The beauty of these characters and these performances comes once again from great actors being given great material. These people all clearly run in the same social circles and are therefore attuned to the societal problems that arise within their way of life, but they’ll never be able to solve their problems in the same ways no matter how much sympathy is shown in every direction.
But above all else, there is love, and while it might not be as strange as the title might suggest, it’s certainly varied and on display in spades here. It’s the kind of work one wishes they could live within, the kind of film where viewers want to actively spend time with the people involved rather than passively observing everything that happens. It’s a singularly powerful work and one of the best depictions of big city romance and friendship that I’ve ever seen. It’s a must see in every sense of that overused phrase.