The title “Love Is Strange” is strange, since director Ira Sachs’ movie, from a screenplay he wrote with Mauricio Zacharias, shows the romance between its male leads to include normal foibles, normal friends and normal frustrations.
Beyond that anomaly is the incomprehensible R rating for a movie that includes no nudity, no sex, no violence, just a tiny bit of cuddling and fewer swearwords than used in an average day by a ninth-grader. Especially given the ending, and the key role played by high schooler Joey (Charlie Tahan), it’s a shame that the MPAA dropped an R on the film.
The movie, which feels a bit like a mashup of Woody Allen and Mike Leigh, succeeds on its simple story and its lead actors. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) get gay-married in the opening scene. Despite their having been a couple for 39 years, they still gaze at each other like newlyweds. At the reception, surrounded by family and friends in their nice but modest apartment, they pound out a rambunctious song together on an old piano, to cheers and tears.
In a commendably non-histrionic scene, George is sacked at his job teaching music at a Catholic school. Seems his marriage violates the rules of employment. Ben, 71 and a painter, has never had commercial success, so the financially strapped couple must sell their apartment. While searching for new digs, they end up crashing separately, George with two younger gay cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez) who live downstairs and Ben with his nephew (Darren Burrows) and his wife (Marisa Tomei) and their son, Joey.
This domestic situation provides just enough tension to keep things moving along. Tomei’s growing frustration with Ben, who chatters amiably while she tries to finish writing a novel, is keenly felt but it never boils over. George suffers through parties at the cops’ apartment, waiting for guests to leave so he can sleep on the sofa.
One night, George travels to Ben’s temporary apartment in a hard rain. The scene of the two elder gents talking in their bunk beds (after Joey is relegated to the couch) is a gem that displays the smooth-edged comfort of the long-in-love.
As shot, mostly with natural light, by Christos Voudouris, “Love Is Strange” ambles forward incrementally. Lithgow’s Ben wears his heart on his sleeve, is slightly bitchy and is not above telling a tall tale of his gay-lib pioneering days in order to get free drinks from a bartender. Molina’s George combines Old World charm with a keener sense than Ben has of their practical problems.
Sachs uses music of Chopin to set a tone that wavers between sweet and sad, with occasional slivers of humor. A late scene of Ben saying goodnight to George on the street and descending alone into the subway is a keeper. So is the film’s central notion that love between two people can be enriched and nurtured by a wider community.