The veteran actors’ spot-on, heartbreaking portrayal of an older couple buffeted about by discrimination and Manhattan’s prohibitive rents highlights a moving film that doesn’t always live up to its promise
If the struggle for gay marriage has taught us anything, it’s that love is patient, love is kind, but same-sex love is a fount of bureaucratic nightmares. Add the barricade-like prices of the Manhattan rental market and the hopeless labyrinth of government housing assistance, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for an apoplectic fit.
Rage is sublimated into despondency in “Love is Strange,” a practical-minded tale of love in limbo. Newly hitched grooms Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina in his native London brogue) find themselves without a home when the latter is fired from his longtime position as a music teacher at a Catholic school for marrying his partner of four decades. The specifics of the couple’s tragedy have all the ingredients of a classic New York story, but director Ira Sachs‘ restrained narration feels more appropriate for a somber dinner-party anecdote or a muckraking newspaper column than a dramatic film.
On the day of their wedding, Ben and George wake up together in their just-wide-enough bed and dress up for each other in casually clashing suits. Lithgow’s frail, egghead elegance and Molina’s rotund, earthy softness naturally complement one another, and the two actors effortlessly sell their relationship with a playful warmth and intimacy. At the reception back at their apartment, the couple declare their love through song, crooning and playing Broadway standards on the piano for their guests without a hint of self-consciousness to their public display of affection.
It’s too bad, then, that Lithgow and Molina are soon separated and share too few scenes thereafter. George’s unemployment forces the couple to move out of their East Village condo before securing a new place to live. Retired painter Ben moves in with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows, “Northern Exposure”) and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) in their two-bedroom apartment, sharing a bunk bed with their troubled grand-nephew Joey (Charlie Tahan). George, meanwhile, crashes on the couch belonging to Ted and Roberto (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), the gay policemen downstairs. It’s only for a month, they promise. Two, tops.
The rest is a waiting game, for both the characters and the audience. Ben and George discover that friends and family are great to have around — just not all the time. After a few weeks apart, George arrives at Elliot and Kate’s apartment one night and immediately crumples into Ben’s arms in tears. But such moments of raw emotion are surprisingly rare for a romance about fragility and codependence.
There’s a mildly diverting mystery surrounding the maybe-too-close relationship between Joey and his slightly older Russian friend Vlad (Eric Tabach), but otherwise Ben and George’s hosts fall into archetypes of the absent husband and the put-upon wife (Elliot and Kate) and the music-blaring gays (Ted and Roberto). Sachs bends over backward to buck stereotypes by making George’s hosts hard-partying geeks who love tabletop games.
After Ben and George suffer weeks of restless nights, it’s hard to fault them a place to live. And yet the resolution to their rootlessness arrives in a fanciful betrayal of the film’s social realism.
Otherwise, though, Sachs’ quiet ambition serves his film rather well. In addition to the ongoing battle for gay rights, Ben and George’s search for a home for their final years touches on the importance of emotional health, the social safety net, and aging with dignity. It’s easy to admire the film for its tackling of these attention-worthy issues, but much harder to feel for the characters when Sachs insists on presenting them as mere victims of sociological sins.
“Love is Strange” boasts an abundance of patience and kindness — but not much of a pulse.