Innately at ease with one another after 39 years of partnership, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) share a strong bond, a comfortable routine, and a cozy Manhattan apartment, a state of affairs seemingly cemented by their long-awaited nuptials. Yet this contented normalcy is only briefly glimpsed in Love Is Strange, which immediately fills the couple’s lives with distractions and obstacles, first an overcrowded apartment on the day of their wedding, then a series of foster homes as their union is thrown into disarray, the result of a sudden economic downturn. The film ends up suffering from this lack of intimacy, prizing theatrical domestic drama over a more measured portrayal of the difficulties of long-term commitment, a choice which leaves both its characters and the drama itself feeling diminished.
In a cruel but not shocking twist, it’s Ben and George’s marriage which puts them in peril, after the latter subsequently loses his job as the choir teacher at a Catholic school. Forced to resign on the passed-down command of a distant bishop, this edict is delivered by George’s direct superior, who’s apologetic but unwilling to stand up to the church. This is the film’s only overt depiction of discrimination, and it’s fitting that it trickles down from on high; the focus here isn’t explicit bigotry, but the difficulty of the small stuff that comes after equality has allegedly been achieved. Yet rather than convey this pragmatically, through low-key intrusions to domestic bliss, director Ira Sachs overplays the tragic aspects of this story, turning an ostensibly ordinary ordeal into a life-rending disaster.
This gets conveyed in mirrored situations, as the couple sells their apartment and attempts to find a more modest living arrangement. Struggling to secure a place in their price range, the two settle into a Make Way for Tomorrow-style arrangement, divided among relatives and friends while dealing with government bureaucracy and the vagaries of real-estate law. The situation is poignant and relatable, but Sachs’s generally realistic depiction clashes with the melodrama that bubbles up as the couple abandons their private paradise; a scene involving family members conferring to assure neither will suffer the horrors of a month in Poughkeepsie is more than a bit ridiculous. That hysterical tenor only gets worse as Ben is pushed out into the wilds of Brooklyn, forced into an uncomfortable loft-living situation with his nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows), his novelist wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their brooding teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), none of whom have much patience or understanding.
A sense of displacement is conveyed more elegantly via George, who’s taken in by friendly neighbors, but finds he’s not as young or resilient as he once was, dolefully riding out their frequent parties from his bed on the couch. Splitting the two principals is the engine that drives the film, and real tension is derived from their separation, but the too-rare moments they share feel like glimpses of a movie that might have handled this scenario with a little less turmoil. This impression is deepened by the fact that Lithgow and Molina share an impressive, lived-in chemistry, and their scenes together, particularly a late-film reunion in an old West Village haunt, are a welcome counterpoint to the stifling mechanics of the rest of the film. This kind of devoted love, as portrayed by two skilled actors, is something rarely depicted on screen, but instead of presenting a committed couple working through a crisis, Love Is Strange focuses on the shockwaves of a single act of cruelty reverberating through a seemingly secure support system, resulting in a familiar series of squabbles and strains.
This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if Ben and George were passed off into equivalently developed dramatic situations. Instead, they function as the only fully realized characters here, the supporting players sketched out as shrill, passive aggressive, or merely oblivious—stock obstacles to intimacy who are all well-meaning but terminally self-involved. What results is a story about human goodness that has too many nasty edges to earn the uplift it seems intent on pursuing. The effect of this is summed up by a late scene, set at a music recital for one of George’s students. Ben states that he loved the performance, but George demurs, noting that there’s no need to embellish when the material itself is already so beautiful. Similarly, Sachs creates a strong central dynamic between his two leads, but the push for heartrending poetry makes it clear that the film is putting too fine a gloss on the acute pains of one small tragedy, overburdening what could have been a simply moving study of commitment and loss.