Directed by Ira Sachs (“Keep the Lights On,” “Married Life“), “Love Is Strange” depicts a New York love affair whose depth of feeling is only matched by the length of its duration. George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow) have been together for 39 years, and as the film begins, they’re fussing and getting ready for a big event—after all these years, they’re finally going to (and for that matter, finally able to) get married. It’s a beautiful day, and George and Ben are surrounded by family and friends and well-wishers, but it turns out to be one with consequences. With his marriage a matter of public record, George loses his job teaching music at a Catholic private school for violating the Archdiocese’s code, and so the devout, decent George is out of a job, with the two forced out of the apartment they bought, unable to keep paying its only-in-New-York array of co-op fees and other obligations entailed. And so, while they look for an affordable apartment in New York, they have to stay with family and friends—separately, with Ben staying with his novelist niece Kate (Marisa Tomei) and her family, and George staying on the couch in the apartment Kate’s son Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) shares with his boyfriend.
If “Love Is Strange” were nothing more than as showcase for its performances, it would still be superlative; Lithgow and Molina are perfect not just as Ben and George, but also as the combination they make with each other. It has been noted that early couples say “I love you” with the force of a thousand exploding suns, but that long-standing couples say “I love you” in a way that can also ask, unspoken, if it was you who happened to leave the goddamn garage door open again. That kind of love is rarely seen on film, and hard to portray when it is; Molina and Lithgow make that happen here, with all of the feeling and fights and closeness that a real couple would have.
But Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias also talk—seriously—about New York economics, subsidized housing, prejudice’s more socially acceptable forms and how the rent is, in the words of the sage prophets, too damn high. George and Ben are an older gay couple, friends to some and relatives to others, and Sachs and Zacharias make sure that we see every aspect of their lives in its complexity and wholeness.
There’s one slight flaw in “Love Is Strange,” and at the same time, it’s substantial: we never really get a sense of exactly how long Ben and George have to impose on their friends, whether in titles or dialogue or even something as simple (and as real) as Tomei shouting at Lithgow that it’s been X amount of time and she’s had it. This may seem a small observation, but anyone who’s had—or been—a houseguest is familiar with the idea expressed in the Italian proverb that “After three days houseguests and fish both start to smell.” When you are hosting or being hosted, you keep track of every second with mental clock the size of Big Ben. Again, it’s a small thing, but it’s also exactly the thing the real-world version of this story would involve.
And even that can’t dispel the pleasures of the film completely—its gentle humanity, its heartbreaking portrait of a couple kept apart, its dry wit and completely earned tearjerking moments. Love, as the writer Carol Shields observed, is a republic, not a kingdom, with all eligible for its favors and subject to its laws. And “Love Is Strange” shows the work that living in that republic can require, and how hard it can be to keep love alive in a world where prejudice is real as rent and a quiet life of companionship can be as difficult to find and keep as an affordable apartment in Manhattan. Calling “Love Is Strange” a great gay love story is both precise and inaccurate; I doubt I’ll see a more finely performed and beautifully crafted love story, with or without any mere modifiers, up on the big screen this year. [A-]