It's not many films that actually start with the happy ending, but that is seemingly the joyful place where "Love Is Strange" first takes us, as the couple Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) are finally allowed to tie the knot in an idyllic wedding ceremony in lower Manhattan after nearly four decades together.
Surrounded by friends and family, it seems this dedicated and loving couple finally get their fairy tale ending. Unfortunately, it's only a catalyst for the troubled detours they have to endure, as they struggle with archaic prejudice, age and health issues — and a relentless and unforgiving New York real estate market, where making a happy and secure home seems almost impossible when dealing with financial issues.
In this eloquent film played out as a moving symphony (aided by a superb Chopin score), director and cowriter Ira Sachs (whose previous films include "Keep the Lights On," "Forty Shades of Blue" and "Married Life") portrays a new kind of modern-day New York love story, guiding his superb cast through the nuisances of a script rich in quietly observed detail.
While New York's new marriage laws allowing same sex unions should be reason to shout, for George it unveils a bigotry that was previously hidden. Even though his relationship was well known to his work colleagues, he loses his job teaching music at a Roman Catholic school because they consider his marriage a public statement of his sexuality they were unprepared to tolerate. It sets in motion a reversal of fortune, as George's loss of income (the elder Ben is retired) means they can no longer afford their mortgage and are forced to sell their co-op.
With no place to live they depend on their friends and family, who of course want to help but have limited space. Ben goes to stay with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan), while George sleeps on the couch of friends Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez), two gay cops and romantic partners that live in their building.
With their new living situation, Sachs paints a broad canvas of New York life, reminiscent of the same tableau Woody Allen has painted in films such as "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Manhattan." George finds his gregarious hosts, who love "Game of Thrones" and impromptu late night parties, doesn't quite fit with his peaceful evenings of book reading and classical music. Meanwhile, the needy and chatty Ben becomes an intrusion and nuisance to Kate, a novelist, who works from home, and an unsympathetic Joey is forced to share a bunk bed with his aging uncle. Its not quite how two grown men plan to spend their twilight years together.
While their living situation may be strange, the title of the film seems a paradox as the love and bond Ben and George maintain despite their circumstances never wavers. In the lead roles, Lithgow and Molina are superb, so comfortable in the skins of their characters, you almost feel you have been granted a private peak into a real-life situation. They capture the comfort and confidence that comes with age and sharing a life together, while seamlessly tolerating one another's idiosyncrasies and pettiness. Tomei's tolerant but overburdened Kate is yet another of her many extraordinary performances.
While its not implicit, Sachs (who's inspiration for the film was when in his own life began a new chapter by marrying longtime partner, painter Boris Torres) manages to infuse a sense of a post-Stonewall history of gay men in New York, but the movie is primarily a homage to any long-standing relationship. Its touching ending may not only leave you wishing you could spend more time in their world but could easily have you reaching for a few handkerchiefs.
KATHERINE TULICH writes about film and culture for Marquee.