Movie Review: Marriage comes at a cost in ‘Love is Strange’

Headed for the altar: Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in
Headed for the altar: Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in "Love is Strange."

‘Love is Strange’
★★★★

Despite the travails and tragedy in “Love is Strange,” you’ll have to look a long time to find a film that’s a better endorsement of long-term relationships.

After 39 years together, middle-aged George and 71-year-old Ben (Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, both at their very best) have decided to take advantage of new laws in New York allowing them to get married. And they do, in a small, low-key ceremony followed by a no-frills party in their cozy apartment, where they’re toasted by admiring friends and family.

Unfortunately, they soon discover that legality is one thing, but universal acceptance is another. Dedicated (and devout) music teacher George loses his job at a Catholic school when administrators learn of the marriage. That means George and Ben will have to sell their beloved condo and seek refuge with friends while searching for an affordable apartment — an increasingly forlorn hope.

Worse, they are forced for the first time in decades to live apart. George accepts a berth on the sofa of a couple of young, constantly partying gay cops and Ben moves in with the family of his workaholic nephew (Darren Burrows), his novelist wife (Marisa Tomei) and their young teenage son (Charlie Tahan).

After so many years together, separation is hard to bear for George and Ben, but it’s clear their relationship can handle the strain. Their friendships, however, might not.

That might not seem like very high dramatic stakes, but writer/director Ira Sachs (“Married Life,” “Forty Shades of Blue”) makes the very most of it. He captures every nuance of the discomfort of independent, mature adults accustomed suddenly forced to be dependent on others.

“Love is Strange” is a minor-key film, with a melancholy quality accentuated by the collection of Chopin etudes comprising the score, but it never slips into despair and never indulges in tearful histrionics. The emotions on display are quiet, understated, occasionally intense but always precisely what might be expected from everyday people in this situation.

Some might find the pace a bit slow and the shortage of Earth-shattering events a bit dismaying, but life is like that, most of the time, and true to life is what this film aims for. It never feels less than 100-percent genuine, especially since Sachs gives equal time to other characters affected by the situation — giving Tomei and Tahan, in particular, the opportunity for subtle, complex performances.

Through it all, George and Ben demonstrate what it means to be a truly loving, mutually supportive couple, bickering every now and then but thoroughly understanding each other. And liking what they know.

That’s never more evident than in their quiet conversation in an historic gay bar in Greenwich Village, laughing, remembering old times and even touching lightly on old wounds, one apologizing to the other for past infidelities. It’s an admission that didn’t really need to be made, but it’s clear, without much being said, both men are happy to have it said. George and Ben leave the bar that night closer than they were when they went in and that’s impressive. Because you probably wouldn’t have imagined that could be possible.

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