“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 twenty 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. Especially when they suddenly need to move in. How many times have you said to someone: “if you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.” It’s such an easy, nice thing to say but when the time actually comes, when someone wants to utilize your offer of help, you may have to help them, and you may not be all that happy about it. Even if the person who comes for help is a loved one.
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 then, when they suddenly need places to crash while they find a cheaper apartment, their friends and family are hesitant at first. They’re not bad people, they mean well and they want to help but it’s also a huge burden to take someone in, especially when you live in a small Manhattan apartment.
In this regard, “Love is Strange” is also about disruption of lifestyles. Ben and George have been living together comfortably and happily for twenty years and now they have 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. And meanwhile over at Kate and Elliot’s, Ben becomes a mini nuisance. During one day he won’t stop talking to Kate, preventing her from getting any writing done. And Joey—having to share a bunk bed with him—isn’t so happy with the arrangement either. The arrangement also begins to highlight other relationship problems and tensions; we start to see cracks in Kate and Elliot’s relationship.
As the title suggests, love is a strange, strange beast. Often times the people you love are the people you can’t stand. It’s easy to tell someone that you care about them and offer help in a get-together situation but when you actually have to live together in close quarters, problems can occur. Going back to Ben’s quote, sometimes you can see too much of people. Fortunately, Sachs doesn’t let “Love is Strange” turn into melodrama; there are some tense altercations near the end but for the most part all of these feelings and emotions I’m talking about are kept below the character’s surface.
The driving force behind the picture is the genuine, effortless performances from Lithgow and Molina. The two convincingly play an upbeat couple that 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 the unhappiness under their breath. They don’t want to live separately and in the lives of other people. 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. They then spend the night together in one of the compact bunk beds, tenderly holding one another.
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. George is fired from his teaching job because of his sexuality but the film never turns into an indictment against the Catholic Church and Sachs doesn’t make him into a spiteful character. There are a lot of pleasant, graceful shots of New York City paired with Chopin compositions to underscore this subtlety and maturity.