Alibi V.23 No.39 • Sept 25-Oct 1, 2014 

Film Review

Love Is Strange

Older couple opts for marriage, ends up out on the street in quietly emotional love story

Love Is Strange

Directed by Ira Sachs

Cast: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina
Can you still be a poster child for something at this age?

The incredibly empathetic indie drama Love Is Strange accomplishes a deft sleight-of-hand trick. It takes a contentious, hot-button issue (gay marriage) and uses it as the basis of a patient, everyday drama that feels cool as a cucumber. There’s no loud preaching here, no hysterics, no agenda driving the narrative. Small, compact and loaded with unexpected emotional impact, Love Is Strange provides the simplest and most direct proof (as if we needed any) that gay marriage should be accepted, celebrated and then promptly ignored like every other American institution.

Filmmaker Ira Sachs has made a name for himself writing and directing a series of films focusing on love and marriage, most of them from a homosexual perspective (The Delta, Forty Shades of Blue, Married Life, Keep the Lights On). His films have always been smart, evenhanded and refreshingly realistic. His is not the work of an activist hoping to change minds. It’s the work of a quiet observer trying to capture exactly what he sees in front of him. Love Is Strange is his most self-assured and instantly accessible work to date.

John Lithgow (The World According to Garp, “3rd Rock from the Sun”) and Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2, Frida) star as an older gay couple living in New York City. A cuter, happier couple you could not find. They’re smart. They’re artistic. They wear suits. Heck, you might even describe them as “boring.” (What more homogenizing accolade could an aging gay couple hope for?) Ben (Lithgow) is a retired painter living on a pension. George (Molina) is a music teacher working at a private Catholic school. The two have been together for 29 years. So when they decide to get married, it’s no big deal. Really. Their friends are happy, and there’s a little ceremony. But these two have been together for three decades. Marriage doesn’t change the formula a whole lot. For them, anyway.

A couple who have lived together for three decades don’t need a lot of dialogue, and this film’s leads speak volumes with their silences and small gestures. Love Is Strange isn’t the kind of film that underlines its important sentences.

To certain other people, though, marriage is a big deal. Once the archdiocese gets wind of George’s nuptials, problems sprout up. The school he’s been employed at for years can stomach a quiet, conservative homosexual. But a flagrantly married one? Not so much. With George’s job gone and Ben’s income fixed, the couple suddenly have trouble maintaining their New York lifestyle. No longer able to afford their condo and bedeviled by New York’s labyrinthine real estate laws, George and Ben find themselves temporarily homeless. After some squabbling among family and friends, it’s decided that the most efficient thing for the couple to do is split up for the time being. Ben will go live with his nephew (Darren E. Burrows—good old Ed from “Northern Exposure”). And George will shack up with a couple of gay cops whose couch is free.

George and Ben try their best to secure a new home together, but even with government assistance, it’s a difficult task. (Honestly, the film may cause you to think less about gay marriage and more about the economic insanity of trying to live in New York.) Time drags on for our happy couple, causing increasing friction among all parties involved. Ben starts to wear on the nerves of his nephew’s wife (Academy Award-winner Marisa Tomei) and teenage son (Charlie Tahan, Blue Jasmine). George, meanwhile, starts to feel like the odd man out in a household full of young party people.

Love Is Strange doesn’t waste its time crafting a complicated story. It simply introduces us to its characters and drops them into an uncomfortable situation. Lithgow and Molina bring decades’ worth of acting skill to their roles—which mostly means they never spend a moment “acting.” A couple who have lived together for three decades don’t need a lot of dialogue, and this film’s leads speak volumes with their silences and small gestures. Love Is Strange isn’t the kind of film that underlines its important sentences. It doesn’t craft monologues. There are no unnecessary emotional flourishes. It’s content to linger in the moment, however long that moment might be. As a result, it never feels less than perfectly authentic.

For some, of course, the film may be too gentle, too small of scale. But for all its reserved humor, understated humanity and polite sentiment, Love Is Strange is an intimate, wonderfully grownup tale of modern marriage. It’s a gay love story that earns itself the highest accolade—it makes the key adjective irrelevant.