“When you live with people, you know them better than you care to.” Ben (John Lithgow) says to his husband, George (Alfred Molina), over the phone near the middle of Ira Sachs’ “Love is Strange.”
After spending 20 years together, the two have finally gotten a chance to marry, but before they can start celebrating, George loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school. They can’t afford to stay in their current Manhattan apartment so they’re living separate from each other with friends and family.
“Love is Strange” is a mature, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, dramedy about — among other things — how even loved ones can sometimes be a burden on one another. This is essentially what happens in the movie: Ben and George are surrounded by a group of loving friends and family who have nothing but nice things to say. One of them, a writer named Kate (Marisa Tomei), even gives a toast at their wedding reception, saying that they’re an inspiration to all. But when they suddenly need somewhere to stay while they find a cheaper apartment, their friends and family are hesitant.
In this regard, “Love is Strange” is also about disruption of lifestyles. Ben and George have been living together comfortably and happily and now they need to live apart, in crammed apartments far away from each other. Ben lives with Kate and her husband, Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), a filmmaker, and their son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), while George lives with a younger gay couple who like to throw parties that go late into the night. Considering George sleeps on the couch, this is a problem.
Meanwhile, over at Kate and Elliot’s, Ben becomes a mini nuisance. One day, he won’t stop talking to Kate, preventing her from getting any writing done. And Joey, who is sharing a bunk bed with him, isn’t so happy with the arrangement, either. The arrangement also begins to highlight other relationship problems and tensions.
Fortunately, Sachs doesn’t let “Love is Strange” turn into melodrama; there are some tense altercations near the end, but for the most part, these feelings are kept below the characters’ surface.
The driving force behind the picture is the genuine, effortless performances from Lithgow and Molina. The two convincingly play an upbeat couple who have lived and strived for two decades. Even with this sudden real estate change, the two do their best to keep a cheerful façade. But you can also detect that they don’t want to live separately and in other people’s lives.
The two share a number of poignant moments together, most notably the scene when they reunite after weeks of being apart. George’s roommates are throwing another late-night party, so he goes over to Kate and Elliot’s, breaking down in Ben’s arms.
Overall, “Love is Strange” is a patient, understated movie about love. It doesn’t go for big emotional scenes or heated arguments among its characters. It’s amusing, but it’s never laugh-out-loud funny. There are sad moments, but the movie never becomes very downbeat. There are a lot of pleasant, graceful shots of New York City paired with Chopin compositions to underscore this subtlety and maturity.