LOS ANGELES — A gay couple who have been together for almost four decades are separated — at least physically — by factors beyond their control in “Love Is Strange,” the latest tender and meandering exploration of human relationships from indie darling Ira Sachs (“Keep the Lights On,” “Forty Shades of Blue”).
Set in the Big Apple, this is a sprawling yet intimate narrative, constructed almost entirely of in-between moments rather than the big turning points and tragedies. The starting point is the housing problem of two newlyweds but longtime lovers, played with enormous generosity by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, but the film slowly expands its vision to encompass a much larger cast that includes Marisa Tomei and Cheyenne Jackson.
Love Is Strange opens on what should be the happiest day in the lives of Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina), as they get ready in their tasteful Manhattan apartment for their wedding. Initially somewhat counterintuitively, Sachs ensures that everything looks rather ordinary: they get up, shower, dress, are running late and can’t find a taxi. Indeed, as will become clear from the film that follows, this is not the happiest day in their lives exactly because the duo, who’ve been together for 39 years, have mastered the art of being happy with what they have, every single day.
Thus, the vows are dispatched in a scene under a minute long, and the marriage celebration takes place in the couple’s apartment and feels like any number of parties they must have had with friends over the years. Wedding guests include Ben’s nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows), a busy businessman; Elliot’s wife, Kate (Tomei), a novelist who works from home; their teenage kid, Joey (Charlie Tahan), and the two party-loving gay cops who live in the lovebirds’ building, Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Jackson).
When news of the marriage reaches the ears of the New York archdiocese, George, who’s a Catholic school music teacher, is fired, and the couple is forced to sell their apartment. When finding new lodgings takes longer than anticipated, they ask their friends for a roof over their head, resulting in the separation of the two.
Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, from “Lights,” get the familiar humor and half-evoked memories that are so typical of long-term relationships exactly right, and a short scene in a historic gay bar is not only funny and real but also casually reveals some of the core values that have kept this couple going for all these years. That said, the rather strange living arrangements of the two, divorced physically if never emotionally, is one of a number of elements that has to be accepted for the film to work; a makeshift mattress for two somewhere would have turned this into a short.
But more important things ring true, starting with George and Ben’s relationship, which is an inspiration for people like Elliot and Kate, both too absorbed by their work to really follow their only son. Lithgow and Molina are impressively tuned into the material and each other, and Tomei and the young Tahan deliver the film’s other heartfelt, fully rounded performances. Burrows and especially Perez and Jackson are given less to do, and there’s a sense something of their stories ended up on the cutting room floor.
The soothing and occasionally quietly soaring music of Chopin, heard throughout the film, helps set the right tone for this understated drama. Cinematographer Christos Voudouris gives the characters room to breathe but is also intimate when necessary, while editors Michael Taylor and Affonso Goncalves string the series of small moments together with grace, turning the film into a quietly effective overview of relationships, feelings and outside occurrences that simply have to be dealt with.
“Love is Strange,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language.” Running time: 94 minutes.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.