As marriage equality gains victory after victory throughout the United States, countless committed couples have been able to share their vows. In Ira Sachs’ latest film, Love is Strange, he takes a look at a couple finally able to enter matrimony only to find that it has created more complications than it has solved. While the film takes on the shape of a familial drama, Love is Strange is ultimately buoyed by the effortless charms of its two leads – John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.
After 39 years together, Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) are finally tying the knot. Their friends and family share in their joy following the ceremony. However, their joy is short-lived as George is dismissed from his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school after the archdiocese have gotten word of George’s homosexuality. With money getting tight, George and Ben must sell their apartment and seek more affordable housing. A solution is found but at a cost. Ben is invited to say with his nephew, Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), and his wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), having to share the lower half of a bunk bed with their moody teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). George, on the other hand, is staying on the couch of a gay couple of cops, Ted and Roberto (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez). Now George and Ben have to figure out the harsh terrain of their future and New York’s housing market, all while trying not to overstep their bounds within the confines of their new living situation.
Love is Strange is as frustrating in moments as it is charming in others. When the screen is occupied by Lithgow and Molina together, they play off one another like they’ve been together for nearly 4 decades. When the film, by design, separates the two, it becomes something much more familiar, blending an uninteresting family drama with an understated coming of age story. Following their forced separation, the film follows Ben’s travails with his extended family more closely than George’s excursion into a busy, loud household. The film also hints at a larger social commentary, however, these only take the shape as plot contrivances – George’s faith and the difference between Catholic dogma and the views of congregation; the availability of affordable housing for seniors in a competitive marketplace like New York.
Leading the supporting cast is Marisa Tomei, who feels sadly underutilized as the frustrated mother, wife, and writer. As Tomei’s angst-riddled son, Charlie Tahan can come across as grating, but that very well could be the nature of his character. None of the supporting characters are bad, per se, but none of them come close to level that Molina and Lithgow are working on.
The script by Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias never finds the perfect balance between its main story and its varied subplots. The film does remain likeable throughout, just in a light, affable way. The film is set to the piano of Frédéric Chopin, and Sachs’ direction shows glimpses of Woody Allen, a lot of long takes in narrow New York apartment hallways. The digital cinematography by Christos Voudouris is as vibrant I’ve seen from a digital production, none of that distracting digital noise that occurs in low light.
Despite its moments of frustration, Love is Strange floats by on the charms of its two leads. It’s a clinic on how two great actors can perfectly understand the tone of the material and play it perfectly, even if the material isn’t the greatest. I could just watch Lithgow and Molina bicker at each other while trying to get a cab for 90 minutes.
Love is Strange is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and opens in New York and Los Angeles on August 22nd. The film will expand to other cities in the following weeks. More information here.