New York filmmaker Ira Sachs’ best work is steeped in understatement and introspective characters, from the disgruntled music producer played by Rip Torn in “Forty Shades of Blue” to the troubled gay couple in “Keep the Lights On.” In between those two projects, Sachs took an uneasy step into more traditional big budget filmmaking with the quasi-Hitchcockian “Married Life.” Like that movie, Sachs’ new work “Love Is Strange” features name actors and a polished look, but it remains remarkably faithful to the strongest ingredients in his other work: Featuring extraordinarily sensitive turns by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as an aging married couple forced to vacate their Manhattan apartment, “Love Is Strange” is a sophisticated take on contemporary urbanity infused with romantic ideals and the tragedy of their dissolution.
The movie opens on the celebratory wedding day for Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina), who have been a couple for nearly 40 years and finally get to legally tie the knot. Surrounded by friends and family, including the 71-year-old Ben’s grown nephew (Darren E. Burrows) and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei, matching the movie’s leads with a deeply believable mixture of delicacy and obstinance). Sachs lays out the prevalent happiness that defines the groups’ lives: Ben, a painter, lives happily with his creativity while George maintains a steady job leading the choir at a local church. Seen charming their house guests after their marriage with a piano duet, their happy existence takes on utopian dimensions — an upbeat atmosphere that intensifies the gloominess to come.
Abruptly fired from the church where he’s worked for years due to congregation members complaining about his sexual orientation, George is suddenly left without any resources to support their cozy world. This shift features Sachs’ repeated means of skipping ahead to significance moments rather than weighing down his story with exposition: From George’s tense exchange with his former employer about his faith, Sachs cuts to a scene in which George and Ben explain to their close friends that they’ve decided to sell their apartment. Suddenly forced into a nomadic state, the men have no choice but to split up — physically, anyway — by staying with different friends willing to squeeze them into their own tiny abodes.
George winds up in the living room of mutual acquaintance Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) — a uniform-clad, socially active gay man whose energetic lifestyle casts a significant contrast with George’s settled ways — while Ben squeezes into his nephew’s place, sharing a bedroom with his angst-riddled great-nephew, teenager Joey (Charlie Tahan). These ingredients don’t lead to major twists so much as a series of observations about the ways that this imprecise arrangement impacts both men. Uneasy in their makeshift homes, they exchange doleful phone conversations while making awkward attempts to blend in. But with no professional hope on the horizon, their situation starts to feel more like a frozen state than any sort of limbo, which heightens the sense of unease about their prospects. While Ben struggles to remain invested in his freelance teaching gigs, George lies around feeling uninspired until he attempts to paint Joey’s close teen friend, a decision that leads to consternation in his nephew’s household.
Constantly uncertain of their next moves and always on the brink of hopelessness, the couple’s quandary is written on the actors’ faces: Molina, eyes routinely heavy as he gets lost in one train of thought after another, has a more complex screen presence than anything he’s done on the big screen in years; Lithgow, playing a klutzy introvert on the verge of senility, emanates both depression and slapstick in his struggles to keep his mind going. This erratic quality gives “Love Is Strange” a fascinating perspective as it veers from a placid take on desperation to a galvanizing consideration of life’s unpredictable ironies.
Sachs follows this conundrum with a patient rhythm while elaborating on the community of people surrounding the two men. The formidable supporting cast draw out the sense of great motion encircling the couple’s increasingly static lives. Tahan, as George’s angry, confused great-nephew, stands out as the film’s great counter-point to the quieter struggles of the older men.
Yet the environment of “Love Is Strange” is as relevant to its appeal as the performances. Christos Voudouris’ swooning urban cinematography, often set to a tranquil Chopin score, lends an air of elegance to the plot while pitting it against the main dilemma. Most scenes take place in the claustrophobia of middle class Manhattan apartments, an apt reflection of the couple’s limited mobility as well as the shrinking personal space that typifies contemporary big city life.
But Sachs rarely overstates his themes. “Love Is Strange” is largely a restrained drama about the loss of comfort. “When you live with people, you know them better than you want to,” George tells Ben, giving voice to their inability to make peace with any company except each other. It’s a conceit expressed even better in visual terms, when George pays a late night visit to Ben and simply embraces him for seconds on end, weeping softly. Sachs’ patient camera simply observes the couple, and for a moment the movie nearly freezes all semblance of narrative and transmutes it into sheer emotion. That “Love Is Strange” manages to squeeze in these tender asides while retaining a wholly straightforward narrative is indicative of the refined filmmaking capabilities on display.
Still, “Love Is Strange” gently pushes its story along by leaving major developments off-screen, making the texture of their ramifications especially pronounced. The result is a consistent look at the ceaseless passage of time that sometimes forces audiences to do too much guesswork and has a distancing effect. Nevertheless, the approach reaches a stirring outcome in the final, lyrical images that mark a generational transition from the older characters to the movie’s youngest star. It’s during this phenomenal ending, one of the best found in any recent American movie, that “Love Is Strange” progresses from a rumination on the past to celebrating the prospects of a sunnier future.
A version of this review ran during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. “Love is Strange” opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday.