The strangest thing about “Love Is Strange,” with its perfect pairing of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a long-committed couple finally able to legalize their relationship in a lovely New York City garden wedding, is how little it is about gay marriage.
The joining together of these men in holy matrimony is rather a rock tossed in a placid lake. Director Ira Sachs and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias are far more interested in the ripple effect.
It is a very specific ripple — classically New York-centric from the rising skyline and the city streets to the harder realities of the real estate market. Home may be where the heart is, but co-op boards and transfer fees don’t make it easy.
The wedding cake crumbs have barely been swept up when George (Molina) loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school. Everyone was willing to overlook his relationship with Ben (Lithgow) until a marriage license took it from abstract awareness to a concrete affront to papal positions. There’s nothing so difficult for the conflicted soul than having to act on principles they’d rather ignore.
Interdependence, despondence, insistence and resistance are the central relationship issues that flow across the generational divides, accompanied by Chopin, with a dash of Beethoven and Nina Simone. The economic pressures of aging in Manhattan is the elephant elbowing its way into the room.
Without Molina and Lithgow, the film might feel like little more than a light experiment in social dynamics. But nearly everything about “Love Is Strange” suits it: its stars, the exceptional costuming by Arjun Bhasin, the city’s design eccentricities nicely cherry-picked by production designer Amy Williams, cinematographer Christos Voudouris’ way of capturing it all in a gauzy light, and the Chopin, so much Chopin you’ll be swooning from the sheer beauty of the preludes, nocturnes and berceuses.
Still, “Love” definitely has that looking-behind-the-curtain sensibility, particularly as George and Ben’s financial woes reach crisis level and their co-op must be sold. Friends and family so recently at the wedding are asked this time not for their blessing but a room in the inn.
One of the film’s richest scenes comes when the camera turns on that small sea of faces slowly draining of optimism as the words “affordable,” “apartment” and “New York City” are used in the same sentence.
Fortunately the couple are beloved, but this is New York — no one has room for two. And so the ripple broadens, rumbling though Brooklyn, where Ben heads to bunk with his nephew’s family — Elliot (Darren Burrows), his wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), the teenager not keen to be sharing his room with a 75-year-old. George heads downstairs, to the couch of good friends.
You don’t have to imagine all the things that can go wrong under both roofs. The filmmakers take care of that nicely. George’s hosts are a young gay couple, police officers and both very much in their partying prime. His days are spent enduring rejection on the job and apartment hunt, his nights suffering through raucous game nights and dance music.
Ben’s sojourn is the more interesting, reflecting the way even a much-loved relative can radically impact that very delicate detente families negotiate to make their coexistence possible and, in less functional times, bearable. Tomei is a standout as wife, mother, novelist and now caretaker, Kate’s worry lines getting deeper, her patience thinner day by day.
Between George and Ben the issues are more fundamental. The difficulties of sleeping alone after nearly 40 years together, the bittersweetness each time they meet and the ways in which both try to cope. None of it is revolutionary. But in the hands of two of the craft’s best, the most ordinary of moments become illuminating, penetrating.
Molina is a master of minimalism. The slightest shrug or the briefest smile carries a lifetime of observational wisdom with it. In contrast, Lithgow is like a dancer, expressive movements, quieter in his flourishes here. One night, in the moments before sleep settles in, Ben on the bottom bunk, a restless Joey on the top, the scrap of relationship advice passed from the elder to the adolescent is made heartwarming and heartbreaking by Lithgow’s elegant understatement.
Ultimately “Love Is Strange” is not a rent riddle to be solved or an emotional and economic ripple to be staunched but a reflection of progress made. The marriage between men is not the chief concern but rather how life should be lived — its joys, pains and all of its orientations equally embraced.
‘Love Is Strange’
MPAA rating: R for language
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing at: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood; Landmark Theatres, West Los Angeles