Love is Strange: ★★★★☆
Director: Ira Sachs
Starring: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei
Love is Strange, Ira Sachs’ fifth feature as director, is about Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), a cultured middle-class New York couple – they’re a painter and a music teacher respectively. After 39 years together, they decide to finally tie the knot. Only, in the kind of irony life and love sometimes bestow, George is fired from the Catholic school he teaches in upon return from their honeymoon. With their cash-flow severely hit, their internal security as a couple is tested by external factors forcing them to sell their apartment and downsize.
The practicalities of New York’s property market proving tough to navigate, Ben and George temporarily relocate with family and friends until they find a new abode – which means having to live apart. George crashes on the sofa-bed of their ex-downstairs neighbours, a gay couple who happen to be NYPD officers, and whose constant house parties put a strain on George’s preference for a quieter lifestyle. Ben, meanwhile, goes to stay with his filmmaker nephew Elliott (Darren E. Burrows) and his novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), sleeping on the bunk-bed of their shy teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan).
These arrangements are further complicated by generational gaps, family rows, and the awkward build-up of small tensions that arises when moving to a new space, with people you care about, yet have never lived with before. In one early scene Kate gives a heartfelt speech at Ben and George’s wedding reception, gushing with the admiration and love she clearly has for the pair. Yet, now that Ben is inadvertently driving her up the wall by harmless but distracting chattering while she tries to write, admiration and love has morphed into cramped frustration.
Despite a few of the secondary characters being slightly underwritten, Sachs, and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, control the tonal shifts between gentle comedy, touching romance and poignant drama extremely well. The structure of the film effuses a true-to-life feel, by being built around unassuming moments, be they discussions around dinner tables, or heart-to-hearts on the bunk-bed. The film’s harmony, mirrored in its lilting piano score, knows when to inject a dose of humour, drop a touch of gravitas like George’s reading a letter to his former pupils’ parents, or take in a more sobering note. Then there’s the exchanges of tenderness Sachs affords Ben and George through their separation, which are genuinely heartwarming while also providing a sense of how these two have blossomed as a couple for almost four decades.
Lithgow and Molina deserve just as much credit for the pitch-perfect tone. Too easily typecast as “character actors” by Hollywood in the past, they’re obviously brilliant at what they do and it’s wonderful to get to see them show off the top of their game. In support, Marisa Tomei manages to mix prickly irritation with real warmth, and newcomer Charlie Tahan gives an understated performance of remarkable intelligence as Joey, whose coming-of-age sub-plot eventually becomes the emotional core of the movie.
In some ways, Love is Strange feels like a modern update of two similarly nuanced, bittersweet classics, Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), with its elderly couple split apart due to housing trouble, and Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) in its depiction of family, aging and generational gaps. That’s a pretty impressive lineage, but Sachs’ film feels fresh in its own right. It is about a gay marriage without trying to tackle any “big issues” (and here George himself being a Catholic is another fine touch that doesn’t try hard to draw any attention to itself), and is blessed with refreshingly frank moments of the sort too seldom seen in movies.