Truth springs from the title and trickles down into every pore of “Love Is Strange,” an uncompromising yet accessible slice-of-life expression from Ira Sachs, one of the most perceptive and personal directors working in American cinema. Here, the helmer branches out beyond his own lived experience to imagine a same-sex relationship 39 years strong as it is tested immediately following the couple’s long-overdue marriage. This beautifully observed ensembler shines on the strength of its two leads, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, who conjure four decades together as they enter the “for better, for worse” phase of their union.
Keenly aware that it is the “sexual” part of homosexuality that seems to offend the family-values crowd, Sachs has shrewdly focused on an example where hearts lead the way — so much so that the couple’s progressive New York family look to their old gay uncles as role models in romance. That’s not to say that painter Ben (Lithgow) and music teacher George (Molina) are an idealized pair. They still bicker and fuss, and in one of the film’s most moving scenes, an errant husband apologizes for his past indiscretions.
These two may as well be real people, which is precisely how Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias have conceived them, leaving room for the actors to breathe life into the roles. It takes a bit of time for audiences to acclimate, leaving the early scenes feeling somewhat stiff as Ben and George exchange vows, while characters we haven’t had a chance to meet clap and smile from the sidelines. Like a film by Altman or Cassavetes, Sachs’ movies can be overcrowded this way, as the director’s generosity makes it impossible to exclude anyone from the picture (apparent in the way the camera privileges virtual strangers with dedicated closeups in group scenes), though his gentle humanism recalls the more reflective empathy of “Tokyo Story” in particular this time around.
In short order, the key players emerge, courtesy of a family powwow in which the elderly newlyweds face the consequences of making their commitment public: Though the administrators at the Catholic school where George teaches music had long known he was gay, they’re forced to fire him after diocese officials gets wind of his marriage. Without George’s income, the couple can’t afford their mortgage and are forced to impose on their inner circle for a place to stay.
George crashes with “the policewomen,” as they affectionately refer to their butch gay-cop buddies (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), while Ben lands with his workaholic nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows) and his write-from-home wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), where he shares a bunk bed with their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), who’s at just the age when privacy would be preferred. Though this makeshift arrangement could easily sustain a sitcom, Sachs and Zacharias confine the comedy to the realm of relatable human moments, such that laughs arise out of recognition rather than contrivance.
But isn’t the entire concept contrived? Maybe on paper, but in practice, “Love Is Strange” never feels anything less than authentic, like a true story shared by close friends. One can almost imagine the same thing happening to an evicted pair of grandparents (as it did in Leo McCarey’s “Make Way for Tomorrow”), though in that case, Kate probably wouldn’t be quite so uncomfortable with the idea of Ben asking Joey’s best friend (Eric Tabach) to pose for a painting. Although the couple’s friends and family are far from homophobic, living in such close quarters certainly strains their tolerance of one another. As Ben confides to George by phone one evening, “Sometimes when you live with people, you know them better than you care to.” Judging from Tomei’s delicately understated supporting turn, it can safely be assumed that the feeling is mutual.
More important than the challenges of living with others is the enormous difficulty of trying to live apart, however temporary the arrangement. In depicting that struggle — illustrated through lovesick evenings spent alone and unapologetically affectionate reunions — “Love Is Strange” poignantly makes the case for the validity of Ben and George’s relationship.
But theirs isn’t the only love that matters here. The script pays careful attention to the feelings of the other characters as well, especially young Joey, whose parents begin to suspect he might be gay, and his dad, who might be having an offscreen affair. Like the Eric Rohmer of modern Manhattan, Sachs opens his arms wide and embraces the emotional complexity of his entire ensemble, allowing the focus to shift organically between players. The film even shares a touch of the French director’s sun-dappled aesthetic, courtesy of “Before Midnight” d.p. Christos Boudoirs (not to mention his recurring seasonal motif).
Generally speaking, Sachs favors an unfussy style that privileges his characters over flashier aesthetic choices. The lone exception is the use of a rolling-piano score, composed primarily of Chopin numbers (a staple of George’s tutoring session), which invite yet another layer of reflection without hammering a specific emotional response. Ultimately, as embodied by the likes of Lithgow and Molina, love may be strange, though it could hardly be considered unnatural.