Though its two central characters are men in a long-term relationship, it would be a mistake to categorize “Love is Strange” as a “gay” movie.
In fact, Ira Sachs’ melancholy drama is clearly inspired by the 1937 film “Make Way for Tomorrow,” in which an elderly couple run out of money and after a lifetime together must separate to be farmed out to their selfish children in different cities. “Make Way…” tops my list of the most downbeat (though brutally honest) films ever produced by a major studio during Hollywood’s Golden Age.
That Sachs updates the story to a contemporary setting and makes the couple same sex offers an interesting twist, but at its heart “Love is Strange” is less about sexual orientation than about the economics of living in NYC, the brittleness of familial ties, and the difficulties of having several generations living under one roof. (A century ago, of course, multi-generational households were the norm. Today we’re all a bit too self-centered for that.)
We meet Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) on the day of their wedding ceremony. They’ve been together for four decades, and are now taking advantage of recent judicial rulings to make it legal.
Ben is the older by 10 years, a retiree who still dabbles in painting. He’s a bit fussy, the worrier of the pair. George is the more expansive and upbeat partner.
Staying upbeat, though, is a challenge after George is fired from his longtime job as a music director at a Catholic high school. His sexuality and living situation were never a secret, but by getting married and announcing the news he has violated Church policy. In addition to losing a paycheck, he forfeits health insurance coverage for himself and Ben.
The two have never lived ostentatiously, but now they’re in a financial crunch. They’ll have to sell their now-unnafordable condo and find another living situation.
For the time being, the couple must split up. George will sleep on the couch of the two young gay cops (Manny Perez, Cheyenne Jackson) who live in the same building. But the intense party life maintained by his hosts proves problematical for a 60-something.
Ben finds refuge across town in the apartment of his nephew Elliott (Darren E. Burrows) and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei). Their son Joey (Charlie Tahan) is a sullen teen who grows increasingly irritated by having to share his bedroom with an old man. Moreover, left to his own devices Ben is at loose ends. He begins to get on everyone’s nerves.
It’s not that Elliott and his family are depicted as bad people. They have, after all, opened up their home to a needy relative. But Americans relish our privacy, even in crowded NYC, and a chatty old gent like Ben eventually gets hard to tolerate. The film’s sense of tension is positively squirmworthy.
The performances are excellent, but Sachs’ glacial pacing proves a problem in the film’s middle section. Or perhaps it’s just that the situation he depicts is so damn uncomfortable.
But in the movie’s final 10 minutes Sachs and cast deliver a lump-in-the-throat coda that is achingly beautiful, elevating the entire enterprise into the realm of the memorable.