About halfway through Love Is Strange, George (Alfred Molina) is greeted at the door by his husband, Ben (John Lithgow), and softly weeps on his shoulder. No explanation is given for his crying, but the moment is touching because by that point in this miraculously observant love story, we understand how well these two know each other — and how just the sight of the other’s face can trigger an emotional wellspring. It’s that secret language that exists between two people who’ve been together longer than they’ve been apart.
As the movie opens, George and Ben have finally tied the knot after 39 years as a couple, but with consequences. George is let go from his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school for violating the moral code (i.e., marrying a man), and he and Ben are forced to sell their Manhattan apartment and bunk with separate friends before they can reunite. But ”when you live with people,” Ben laments, ”you know them better than you care to.”
Love Is Strange is the fifth feature by independent filmmaker Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue, Keep the Lights On), who is among the most perceptive and civilized of American directors. His beautifully intuitive script (written with Mauricio Zacharias) is a collection of snapshots. George moves in with his party-hearty downstairs neighbors (Manny Perez and Cheyenne Jackson), a gay cop couple dubbed ”the policewomen.” Ben, an artist who at 71 realizes that his paintings might never gain the acclaim he’s hoped for, shacks up with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows) and Elliot’s novelist wife (Marisa Tomei, essaying another one of her complex Brooklyn dames).
Sachs takes an impeccably balanced approach to the film. It’s neither an advertisement for same-sex marriage nor a scold against the Catholic Church. In one scene, George reads a letter he had sent to his students’ parents; his voice-over is matched to a graceful montage of daily life within the school as he says, ”Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.” That’s as close to sermonizing as Sachs gets. His ironic title refers to all tough relationships, including the one that the characters have with New York City. In how it mirrors life’s joys and disappointments, and charges a minimum of $1,500 per month for the privilege, the city is as much a leading player here as Molina and Lithgow — both of whom, in their many decades as actors, have rarely been as beguiling or moving on screen.
The story is elusive, with unexpected leaps in time comparable to Boyhood. But like Richard Linklater’s masterpiece, Love Is Strange is hardly plotless. The final act is punctuated by a major event, yet Sachs is too smart a director to dwell on it. Instead he aims away from the obvious and toward a poignant wordless denouement involving Ben’s 15-year-old great-nephew (the revelatory Charlie Tahan of 2010’s Charlie St. Cloud). It’s one final nuanced decision in a movie loaded with them. Sachs, Molina, and Lithgow have given adult moviegoers a perfect piece of summer counterprogramming — a warm, humane, resplendent romance to savor while our days are still long. A