Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ira Sachs
Stars: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Darren Burrows, Charlie Tahan, Cheyenne Jackson, Manny Perez, Eric Tabach.
Love is indeed strange, elusive and even painful at times.
New York filmmaker Ira Sachs often explores queer politics and gay themes, but this beautifully observed, poignant, bittersweet and touching comic drama is arguably his most accessible film yet. And it is certainly a nice change of pace from his more confronting and semi-autobiographical Keep The Lights On.
Love Is Strange benefits enormously from a pair of winning, sympathetic performances from John Lithgow (3rd Rock From The Sun, etc) and Alfred Molina (Maverick, etc) as Ben and George, a gay couple who have lived together for nearly four decades. But when they get married their circumstances change drastically. George loses his job as a music teacher at a conservative Catholic school, and the pair are forced to leave the apartment that has been their home for the past two decades.
While they look for a new apartment, the pair are forced to temporarily live apart for the first time in their relationship. Ben, who is a landscape painter, moves in with the family of his workaholic nephew Elliott (Darren Burrows, from Northern Exposure, etc) and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei, from My Cousin Vinnie, etc), a writer. He is forced to share a bunk bed with their surly teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan from Charlie St Cloud, etc), who resents the loss of his privacy. There is some increasing tension between Joey and Ben that adds to the complicated relationship dynamics of the film.
Meanwhile George sleeps on the couch of their neighbours, a couple of NY cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez) whose hard partying life style is at odds with his quiet and restrained lifestyle. He feels increasingly isolated and alienated.
The two men find it hard to adjust, and living apart puts further strain on their relationship. Sachs looks at themes of family, relationships, aging, marriage equality and gay marriage, and explores how Ben and George cope with their late life crisis and changed circumstances. The perceptive script, co-written with his Keep The Lights On Collaborator Mauricio Zacharias, is both honest and touching, with many poignant moments, without becoming too sentimental or maudlin. And it will be a hard heart indeed that fails to be moved by its touching finale.
Sach’s direction is sensitive and subtle, but it is the strong central performances of perfectly cast veterans Lithgow and Molina that give the material both heart and substance. Both actors bring gravitas as well as a lived-in and honest, human quality to their characters.
Lithgow, who hammed it up wonderfully in the long running tv series 3rd Rock From The Sun, reins in his usual over the top mannerisms for something a little more restrained here. He is touching as the elderly man trying to retain some vestiges of his dignity under trying circumstances. Tomei, who has often been maligned as an actor, delivers an understated performance as Elliott’s wife, a writer who finds Ben’s presence too much of a distraction from her own work.
However, there are a number of subplots woven throughout the narrative that are not entirely satisfactorily resolved, such as the complex relationship that slowly develops between Joey and fellow student Vlad (Eric Tabach in his film debut), which has a strong homoerotic undertone.
The film looks superb too, as cinematographer Christos Voudouris (Before Midnight, etc) gives the material a surface beauty, and his lingering, sun dappled shots of the Manhattan skyline add atmosphere and give it a real sense of location. As with the films of Woody Allen, the city almost becomes a character in the drama.