Love, for being such a harmonious emotion, has received numerous lashings from pop culture over time. It’s been likened to a battlefield, dubbed crazy and stupid – hell, it’s even been called a “motherf&cker” by Old School – but I believe writer/director Ira Sachs hit the nail on the head by simply stating “Love Is Strange.” How does one capture such a wild, untamed emotion in one movie, guiding us from a lustful spark’s initial lighting all the way to its bittersweet flickering out? Easy, he doesn’t. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina may fearlessly play two long-time lovers in what appears to be a typical genre setup, but Sachs merely uses the homosexual couple as a wonderful portrayal of love’s rawest state – avoiding preachy civil rights issues and obvious statements about equality. Instead, Sachs suggests we live, laugh, love, and touch as many hearts as we can with our time here, because one day it’s going to run out and someone will have to carry on that tradition of love for us.
We meet George (Molina) and Ben (Lithgow) in their later stages of life, finally wedding because of New York’s legalization of gay marriage. Happily recognized as a married couple, George’s elated state is quickly shot down when his choir job with the church fires him when the Bishop finds out about his marital state. Relying only on Ben’s pension, the two are forced to sell their lavish NYC condo in hopes of finding something more affordable, which means the newlyweds must battle being homeless in the meantime. Staying in the city, George moves in with two gay cops living downstairs while Ben moves in with his nephew’s family, marking the first time Ben and George have been apart for decades. With their relationship being tested, can the two aged lovers find an apartment before driving their hosts crazy or going insane themselves?
I’m not sure why there’s always a bit of hesitation when we hear two straight actors are going to be portraying a gay couple, because movies like I Love You, Phillip Morris have recently shown that it’s all about chemistry, connection, and a mutual adoration – much like real life. Whether it be gay or straight actors, we still have to believe in an on-screen relationship for a film to work, and Love Is Strange turns out to be a spectacular success for both Lithgow and Molina. Sachs doesn’t subject viewers to crazy romantic comedy scenarios or silly tests of will power, instead focusing on a time where two characters understand exactly what eachother wants, savor every second together, and highlight the world’s most intimate beauty. Ben and George are two peas in a pod, but their love is tender and their hearts beautiful – a love any one of us would be lucky to find. Lithgow and Molina both yearn for their good-natured counterpart, and their embraces end up ten times more emotionally charged than anything seen throughout drivel like Endless Love or Winter’s Tale.
Sachs also deserves praise here for honing a script that’s more about the lives we touch while adventuring through our daily routine, making Love Is Strange more about a larger theme than contained relationships. As Ben and George are torn apart, they become strangers in new scenarios who are forced into a game of adaptation that neither ever fully embraces. Ben seems pleasant around Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and his family, yet Kate (Marisa Tomei) and Joey (Charlie Tahan) show immediate signs of frustration while Ben simply tries to make smalltalk. George, on the other hand, finds himself kept awake at all hours whether Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez) are playing Dungeons & Dragons or throwing dance parties, but each main character again displays their mild-tempered, loving nature towards their hosts. While Ben and George would like nothing more than to be reunited, there’s a meaningful maturity about their situation that’s often ignored when younger characters start sneaking behind forbidding parent’s backs and what have you.
Love Is Strange gambles mightily on an abrupt, almost unfulfilling ending, but that’s only because we’re trained to wait for some type of storybook finale that ties everything nicely like a gentleman’s bow tie. Ben and George spend their marriage separated by God’s unfortunate will, and we instinctively want to see them live happily ever after once the perfect NYC apartment is found, but Sachs sees beauty in other actions. Pessimists might find nothing but grief when Ben and George’s adventure reaches its climax, but more enlightened viewers will find an ending parallel to the constant circle of life instead of one, measly relationship. Love Is Strange speaks volumes about human compassion, expanding a closed-minded concept of love that’s only available between two people – while also acknowledging love isn’t something determined by pen, paper, and ceremony.
Love Is Strange feels playful, genuine and wholly grounded in reality, utilizing a gay relationship for nothing but emotional comforts and weighty human development – not exploitation. Not that this should be a momentous occasion, but Ben and George aren’t treated differently for their more progressive choices (sans George’s firing obviously), and this seamless connection between Lithgow and Molina translates into one of the year’s best romances. Sach’s story is a skillfully woven lullaby that warms the soul, showing what the bonds of healthy, adorning love can mean throughout a lifetime – a modern day fairytale if you will. Read into the comments on spacial issues in NYC and obvious sadder notes about two kindred spirits being held apart, or dream about the magnificent years these two men shared together that built such an overwhelming commitment in their souls. Love may be strange, but it’s a strangeness that makes life worth living in itself – and that’s the most important lesson Ben and George teach us.
John Lithgow and Alfred Molina create a genuinely tender chemistry that turns Love Is Strange into a sweet love story about how a strong relationship can bring out the brightest moments of life.