Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are a couple forced to part ways in "Love is Strange." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
‘Love is Strange’ Director: Ira Sachs Stars: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina Rating: R 4 (out of 5) Globes
Despite how it may sound, “Love is Strange” is not really a gay marriage film, nor even particularly political. There is one part where it is, very early on: Almost immediately after longtime couple Ben and George (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) have belatedly wed — soon after New York State legalizes same-sex marriage — the latter finds himself out of a job. He’s spent years as a music teacher at a Catholic school, and everyone — including his immediate supervisors — have long known of his orientation. But the highers-ups are not having it and demand his immediate dismissal.
It’s an ugly scene, but what follows could happen to anyone who falls on dire straits. Ben and George can no longer afford their cramped but homey Greenwich Village apartment, and they also can’t immediately find a new, affordable one. So while they wait for a replacement spot, they are forced to live apart: Ben with family, George with friends. They’re far apart, in different boroughs, and plenty of screen time elapses without them seeing each other — enough that another type of film emerges altogether: the one about putting up guests and the typically passive-aggressive neuroses that result.
While George isn’t very happy crashing on a couch with a couple that likes parties (and D&D), Ben arguably has it worse — although he’s not blameless. Stuck on the lower bunk in his grand-nephew’s (Charlie Tahan) room, Ben likes to nap during the afternoon and doesn’t seem to catch on that constantly chit-chatting with his nephew’s wife, work-at-home novelist Kate (Marisa Tomei), seriously throws off her work. Kate is too nice to set things straight, and it’s not long before there’s a prickly situation no one wants to address or solve.
John Lithgow doesn't try hard enough to not annoy Marisa Tomei in "Love is Strange." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
“Love is Strange” has more in common with bad houseguest movies — like the Turkish film “Distant,” if not “Houseguest” — than “Philadelphia” or “Prick Up Your Ears,” the latter which starred Molina as Kenneth Halliwell, Joe Orton’s lover. Some of the major plot turns in the script can be screenwriterly — in fact, one is so incredibly coincidental that it goes from being silly to basically fine.
But plot is not where the film’s interests lie. Director Ira Sachs (of “Keep the Lights On,” which does something similar with the bad relationship genre) favors a purely observational approach, one that’s as gentle as the Chopin piano pieces that frequent the soundtrack. His cameras quietly prowl over lived-in scenes where people do very little while tensions slowly mount. Dinners and nightcaps start with characters trying not to address the matter at hand, the awkwardness breaking with talk about a film (including a great gratuitous shout-out to the Bubsy Berkeley Technicolor behemoth “The Gang’s All Here”).
It’s also allowing us new ways to see two of cinema’s great over-the-top hams. Lithgow and Molina are both fine actors usually called on to go big. Here they scale it all the way down to the bone, doing little but saying volumes. Lithgow in particular is a revelation: Ben is the kind of person who rarely opens his mouth, but when he does you sense an entire universe inside — someone you only get to know through a lifetime at his side. The film too is heartbreaking in this way, which is to say not just in the ways you’d expect from a film with this premise.