In Ira Sachs’ warming and wistful tragi-romance Love is Strange, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play longtime lovers who are getting legally married after 30-plus years together. Almost immediately after the wedding, Molina’s George gets fired from his job as a choir teacher at a Catholic school, and with Lithgow’s frail artist Ben out of work, they also lose their cozy Manhattan apartment. No one in their circle of friends wants to take in both Ben and George, so they split up while Ben searches for a new place, a living situation that proves more prolonged and difficult than expected.
This contemporary story has an ancestor in the wonderful 1937 Leo McCarey tearjerker Make Way for Tomorrow, starring Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi as a financially destitute couple forced apart and passed around by their selfish children. In their separation, this reserved and repressed old couple discovers a burning need for each other that was never realized or expressed in their many decades together.
The crucial difference is that Make Way for Tomorrow took place in an America just beginning to recover from the Depression, a world of limited options and primitive communications technology. Love is Strange updates Make Way for Tomorrow for a more materialistic age, one where living beyond your means is equated with living in poverty. Ben and George simply don’t want to leave Manhattan, and for flimsy reasons that the film briskly brushes off its lapel. There is not very much keeping the lovers in Love is Strange apart besides the weak contrivances of the script.
Only a shallow, decadent narcissism totally at odds with the portrayal of Ben and George as a model couple could explain their acceptance of a prolonged “forced” separation, especially since the film makes it seem like they are on different planets, rather than different neighborhoods. It’s reminiscent of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer breaks up with his girlfriend when she moves to the Lower East Side, as he’s unwilling to pursue a “long-distance relationship.” A family member offers to give both Ben and George free room and board in Poughkeepsie, but the film condescendingly portrays her as a brittle, self-loathing space case, so they decline the invitation despite Ben’s obviously ailing health.
Unfortunately, the forced nature of the setup strains credibility to the point where you step out of the film and begin to interrogate the narrative. In one particularly emotional sequence, a lonely George walks out of the nonstop party house where he’s been crashing, makes his way across the city to where Ben is staying, and falls sobbing into his arms. This scene is one of the centerpieces of the film, and it’s lovingly played and very affecting, but I kept wondering why this couldn’t happen every single day if it was so damn easy. And if the longing for a sensory connection between them is so urgent, why not try Skype? Do laptops not exist in this sun-dappled, fairy-tale vision of Manhattan artists and intellectuals?
It’s too bad, because otherwise Love is Strange is a smart and cozy watch, and very well-acted, especially by the leads. Lithgow gets the showier part, but he doesn’t overwind it, instead giving us a beautiful, heart-wrenching slow fade. Molina’s character is the steady rock in the relationship, and he performs the same function here, seeping into the cracks of the film like water into wood. The solid supporting cast includes Marisa Tomei as an in-law experiencing destabilization in her own marriage, and a promising newcomer named Charlie Tahan as her shy son.
Love is Strange is the fifth feature from writer-director Ira Sachs, whose Forty Shades of Blue took home a Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. However, it is only the second Sachs film I have seen besides his awful 2007 movie Married Life, which wasted several good actors on a tone-deaf study in plastic cynicism. The Chopin strains and winter-blanket vibe of Love is Strange suit Sachs (who co-wrote the film with Mauricio Zacharias) a lot better, and there is an elegant confidence to the storytelling and visuals that felt forced before. Next time, he just needs to avoid forcing the premise.