'Love Is Strange.' And Beautiful. But No One Warned Us It Would Be So Sad
Love Is Strange is an unusual love story, in that is is actually a story about love. There are no crossed stars or deep betrayals or crazy hijinksy misunderstandings keeping anyone apart. It is slice-of-life in the truest sense: for the entire duration of the film, we are merely watching two people exist in their love for each other. What a simple, remarkable concept.
Of course, that is not to say that the film is without its obstacles — far from it. When the movie starts we are almost 40 years into a relationship. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have spent more than half their lives together, but are just now, in the great state of New York, able to tie the knot. However, immediately following the joy that is their wedding, George is fired from his job as music teacher at a Catholic school. Never mind that George has been out for his entire career, or that teachers, parents, students, and administration love him, and have been to his house and accept Ben as his loving partner. By making it official, he’s suddenly an enemy of the church. It’s just… how these things work. Also filed under Things to Outrage You That Are Completely Pointless to Fight Against: the New York real estate/ co-op system. With both men out of work (Ben is an artist who paints for the love of it rather than money, living on a pension), they are forced to sell their beautiful condo in a rush, and accept next to nothing for it. With no other options, they swallow their pride and ask their friends and family to take them in, and, with a shortage of available space, are forced to split up in the process. And just like that, the two are transformed from dapper, loving, grown men, to helpless geriatrics, and even worse, burdens.
George moves downstairs to sleep on the sofa of their neighbors, another gay couple, a pair of young Hot Cops who throw great parties and host raucous late-night Dungeons and Dragons sessions. Ben moves in with his nephew (Darren E. Burrows, whom they managed to make look impressively creepy and unattractive) and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei, killing it) and their fragile, awkward teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). Neither is the ideal situation for two adults accustomed to living not just on their own, but on their own together.
Still, despite all of the bulls*t thrown at these characters, Love Is Strange does not seem to be a statement regarding any of it. Even the characters themselves barely even graze the surface of seeing these obstacles as larger social or political issues. The movie simply focuses on this one particular story. And Ira Sachs works his ass off to remind us of that. Here he heavily favors the long take: the quiet, emotional scene with the unmoving camera, convincing us to believe we are right there with them, totally enveloped in this private story. The whole thing teeters on being manipulative (and no fault to you if you think it topples over occasionally), with John Lithgow so calm, so pale, and his hair so perpetually frazzled, that you can’t help but think he could crumble at any moment. Or his great-nephew, who seems to be hiding some deeper layer of weird that you’re waiting to come violently tearing out. Or Tomei, so self-contained that you think she must eventually snap. The entire cast, really, is a terrifyingly fragile glass menagerie of emotion, and you may spend the entire movie dreading the moment that one (because surely, it must) fall and crack open. But through the never-ending layers of deep, futile sadness that make up this movie, at the center of it is still John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, two men who know how to luxuriate in their impossibly engaging charisma. When those two men stare into each other’s eyes, it’s like a black hole of pure, joyful love. Either of them could easily carry any movie. Together, with a center of mutual admiration and great true love, they’ll break your heart in a spectacular fashion. And, in truth, that seems to be the entire purpose of this movie.
Vivian Kane just wants someone to grow old and become homeless with.