Fine performances from two stage and screen veterans, and a keen sense of balance between humor and poignancy, elevates "Love Is Strange" above what it might have been in lesser hands: contrived and sentimental.
There’s been lots of favorable buzz about the work of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a married couple coping with an enforced separation, and the praise is deserved.
Artist Ben (Lithgow) and music teacher George (Molina) have co-habited in Manhattan’s West Village for 39 years, and happily take advantage of the new legality of gay marriage in New York state.
But there’s fallout: When their picture appears in the newspaper, George is fired by his longtime employer, a Catholic school. The two will have to sell their apartment and find a cheaper place, a daunting task in New York’s unforgiving real estate market.
Their friends and relatives, mainly very supportive, don’t have room to put up two adults, so the couple splits up, with George sharing the apartment of a pair of much younger gay cops, and Ben moving in with a nephew (Darren Burrows), his wife (Marisa Tomei) and teenage son (Charlie Tahan). Again, there is fallout.
Ira Sachs, the film’s director and co-writer (with Mauricio Zacharais), mostly avoids dramatic fireworks in detailing the consequences on all involved.
George is out of his element with the party-loving cops, and Ben’s loneliness begins to try the nerves of the nephew’s wife, a novelist who writes at home.
Strains appear in the nephew’s marriage, and their son, who seems to have issues about his own sexuality, deeply resents sharing a bunk bed with Uncle Ben. The parents fret about the boy’s relationship with an older foreign student at his school.
|‘LOVE IS STRANGE’
Opens Friday at Kahala 8
Lithgow and Molina are outstanding at conveying the men’s reactions to the indignities they are forced to suffer at a time when many others are settling into a contented retirement. One of the chief problems is that they simply miss each other — the warmth of cuddling, the sense of being at ease together.
These are exceptionally endearing performances.
Among the rest of the cast, Tomei stands out in conveying her character’s conflict between performing an act of charity for a beloved relative and putting up with an intrusive presence.
The main problem is with the conclusion. I don’t want to spoil things, so I’ll just say you may find it’s both unsatisfying and lacking in credibility. There were also a few moments when you might detect a sense of self-satisfaction on the filmmakers’ part.
Neither objection should be a deal-breaker. See "Love Is Strange" for its sensitivity and understated jokes, but mainly for Lithgow and Molina’s expertly modulated work, which pulls the movie back when it threatens to stray into melodrama or heavy-handedness. That’s the kind of thing old pros know how to do.