Love Is Strange is many things; warm, witty and charming. But strange? Once upon a time, a story of two aging gay men getting hitched would have been an onscreen novelty. Nowadays, onscreen homosexual relationships can be gifted the normality afforded to heterosexual relationships. The titillations of The Duke of Burgundy come not from its homosexual couple, but from the fantasy world around them. The normality of the couple in Love Is Strange is embraced, but it serves to deny the film the novelty suggested by its title. Love is a many-splendoured thing, but strange? Not today.”
Love Is Strange opens with Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) getting up one morning. But today is not like most days. They’re putting on their fineries and preparing to tie the knot, after 39 years together. They look into each other’s eyes and say “I do.” They sit together at their piano at their Manhattan apartment and bash out old-time tunes with aplomb and joy. The tone for Ira Sachs’ dramedy is set in these early scenes; it’s full of joy and charm, with little to disrupt the party. Of course, something does come in to disrupt the lives of our central couple, but the film lets them just get on with things. The film actively refuses to grasp a nettle, which is a mixed blessing.
Soon after their big day, George is forced out of his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school because of his nuptials. The obvious story to tell would be to see what George might do to get his job back, but Sachs and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias are not interested in swamping this lovely couple in a battle and a message. George accepts his fate, acknowledging that he knew the risks of the marriage. There’s a horribly practical resignation to George and Bob’s attitude that reflects their years. A younger man would be keen to fight, but Ben and George’s hesitance gives the film an extra dash of pathos. The resulting lack of income forces the two to find somewhere cheaper to live, but the interim sees them separated. Ben moves in with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their son Joey (Charlie Tahan). Meanwhile, George moves in with the young gay couple downstairs. Love Is Strange is defined by a gentle grace that sees these characters have their hearts slowly, surely besieged by their enforced separation. Molina and Lithgow are wonderfully warm together, so we feel the cruelty of forcing them apart.
Conversely, Love Is Strange is also denied a certain bite because of its non-confrontational stance. The strains of living with family and friends flit between comedy and tragedy, which gives the midsection an episodic feel. The supporting cast do fine with adequate roles, but it’s nothing compared to when the central couple are together. The actors love this pair; the script loves this pair. The audience will love this pair. Everyone else just keeps the plot ticking along until they reunite now and then. Whether meeting realtors, sipping drinks at the bar together or negotiating the awkwardness of a bunk bed, Ben and George are the heart and soul of Love Is Strange. The film isn’t picking a fight; its focus is the people. More importantly, it’s about people in love, regardless of their sexuality, and the practicalities of living and loving. Its commitment to the couple means direction and plotting is banal at times, but love conquers all in the end. Love may be strange, but the innate appeal of Love Is Strange is quite straightforward: genuinely appealing characters who adore each other. It’s a gentle joy.