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Ira Sachs’s Love Is Strange Attains a Strange State of Grace

John Lithgow in Love Is Strange.

Ira Sachs’s bittersweet winter-of-life romantic drama, Love Is Strange, is strangely titled. In the movie, it’s not love but New York real estate that’s strange—the result of an economy in which so many people are so few paychecks away from homelessness. Love is cozy, comfortable, normal. In the first scene, a gay couple, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), tie the knot after 39 years while their friends and relatives cheer, everyone giddy that the couple finally has the legal right to wed. The problem is that legal does not mean church-sanctioned—and George directs a Catholic-school choir. After he’s cast out of the job he loves, he and Ben (71, a retired painter) must sell their apartment (a 25 percent co-op “flip tax” kills them) and move in with whoever has the room to put them up. Now the affection of those wedding toasters will be tested. George settles in on the sofa of a pair of young gay cops, and Ben winds up in the bottom bunk in his sullen teenage nephew’s bedroom. As a consequence of marriage, they can no longer sleep side by side.

This is not an easy film to watch, given the general awkwardness. In the first scene, Kate (Marisa Tomei), the wife of Ben’s nephew, gives a fulsome wedding toast, her tongue loosened by the beauty of the union, but exposed to Ben’s chatty presence on a daily basis, her irritation mounts. George, for his part, must endure the boisterous parties of his hosts, who are almost 30 years his junior. The time does not fly by. As the movie goes on … and on … there is little to do except feel very, very bad and wonder at the meaning of Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias’s story. The grim irony at the heart of Love Is Strange is that something as boundary-bursting as a gay marriage can trigger—even in progressive New York—a backlash. But I think this tale of woe can principally be seen as a plea for a heightened sense of community. It takes a village to keep us all afloat.

Love Is Strange is drab-looking and has its longueurs, but it’s emotionally very full. The piano soundtrack, heavy on Chopin, is conducive to meditation, and the actors are in tune with its gentleness. I loved Lithgow’s dreamy sadness and Molina’s heavier one—George knew that by going public with his love, he was putting them both at risk. Lithgow and Molina caress easily, comfortable with silence; they know each other’s soft spots. Tomei is very fine as a woman laboring and mostly succeeding to be good. As her troubled son, Joey, the young actor Charlie Tahan has an expressive blurtiness. Joey says the cruel things to his uncle that everyone else is thinking and then comes to regret that he didn’t rise to the occasion. In the end, Love Is Strange attains a strange state of grace.

*This article appears in the August 11, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Jeong Park/Sony Pictures Classics