Love Is Strange starts with a tableau likely recognizable to any couple whose time together can be measured in decades. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) busy themselves with the particulars of their morning. They banter with their housekeepers, fuss over each other’s suits, demand to know which of them has the keys. But this isn’t just the bustle of a typical morning. This is the morning on which, after 39 years together, Ben and George are getting married, finally allowed to do so by the state of New York.
Barely any time later, George is called into his boss’s office. George, you see, is the choir director at a Catholic school, and while his relationship was a secret to virtually nobody at the school, his marriage is considered grounds for immediate termination. And that’s where Love Is Strange begins, as one chapter of Ben and George’s life comes to a close and another far more chaotic one begins. George moves in with his hard-partying neighbors, Ben goes to live with his overworked nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and Elliot’s author wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), and director Ira Sachs moves back and observes how this latest obstruction to Ben and George’s relationship affects them and all those around them.
At points, Love Is Strange is among the warmest, most heartening films of the year to date. Those points are when Lithgow and Molina are together and allowed to flesh out the subtleties of a long-running relationship. While the film is never particularly clear about how or why the temporary end of their cohabitation completely separates them from one another for prolonged periods of time, the longing is palpable. Lithgow, in particular, turns in splendid work as a man full of life but slowly losing his grasp on what to do with that. He’s senile in that way where his loved ones find it cute that he’s forgetful on occasion, but where it’s readily clear that this will eventually become a problem. (Wisely, for the film’s many contrived beats, that’s one left unexplored.)
Ben and George are the sort of couple that can be looked at for only moments before the ferocity of their love and the severity of their struggles together become evident. There are allusions to past infidelities and to Ben’s frustration with George’s prioritizing of his happiness in the workplace over their tumultuous situation, but the love and commitment never waver. Sachs paints them in muted strokes, building character not out of dialogue or incident but of the ways in which they interact, and more importantly, how others react to them.
Incidentally, it’s those “others” who turn Love Is Strange from a delicate character study to an overwrought melodrama more often than the film can ultimately handle. Sachs uses the marital strife between Elliot and Kate to keep the story moving, but never integrates it into the larger narrative in any meaningful way. Likewise, Ben’s tenuous relationship with their son Joey (Charlie Tahan) sets up a series of red herrings that would appear to suggest Joey’s story might tie into or parallel theirs in some meaningful way, only to resolve it, much like most of the film, with a shrug.
To a point, the film’s faults can be argued for in context of Sachs’ larger purpose. The overwhelming sense of NYC artistic privilege that lays over the whole film is cloying at points, but also firmly roots the film in a sense of place and time. The stark contrast between George’s unwillingness to engage with his new home and Ben’s status as a burden in his own, if on-the-nose, leads to some lovely stuff between Molina and Lithgow as they try to negotiate the perils of separation, however fleeting it may or may not be. (One of the film’s funnier running gags is their collective unwillingness to relocate to less stressful housing in Poughkeepsie.) When the film is about Ben and George, Molina and Lithgow tell a charming, carefully observed love story in small moments.
More often, however, Love Is Strange is bogged down in annexed stories that say little and aren’t anywhere near as interesting as the central couple. This is especially true of the film’s ending, the sort of finale that brings one to retroactively question the quality of everything that preceded it. From perhaps the most important moment in the entire film being left to silence and darkness to a finale that re-contextualizes the film’s very meaning with little lasting impact, the film sputters to its finish and is beholden to plot over the gentle rhythm of the story up to that point. Love Is Strange is worth seeing just for Lithgow and Molina’s bravura work, but it’ll leave you wondering if they wouldn’t have been better served by a different movie.