It is the privilege of straight white pundits to distinguish “social issues” from “economic issues.” Abortion and gay marriage are social issues, according to Chuck Todd types. The power of Love is Strange, the wonderful movie directed and co-written by Ira Sachs, is that it creates a situation that people who live in what used to be the middle class recognize. Matrimony and security are neither synonymous nor a cause and effect. But the movie doesn’t stop there. Love is Strange also shows how soaring real estate in cities have destroyed the bohemian life of art and music and literature. Capitalism curdles into an oligarchy indivisible from socialism: those who can afford two-bedroom apartments also get the good schools that teach geography and music. The rest have to hope to bump into the right stranger at a party ready to surrender a rent-controlled studio in the West Village. In other words, Love is Strange is about the way we live now.
Deciding to make their thirty-nine-year partnership legal, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) learn that Molina’s job at a Catholic elementary school in Manhattan is no longer tenable after the archdiocese’s investment in the fiction of don’t ask/don’t tell dissolves. Ben, a retired art gallery owner at seventy, has no income. They must surrender the co-op in which they’ve lived for twenty years. There follows a scene of exquisite awkwardness. During a living room heart to heart with Ben’s nephew Eliot and wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), Ben and George’s gay cop friends Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Cheyenne Jackson), and Ben’s niece Mindy (Christina Kirk), it becomes clear that the people who most love George and Ben aren’t quite ready to upset their scrupulously arranged lives. No one says anything, but silence says everything (Sachs is keen on establishing that it’s easier for friends and relatives to make claims so long as they’re not living with us). Moving with Mindy to Poughkeepsie is out of the question—it’s in the country (shades of Alvy Singer worrying about dead moths on screens)! Off-camera the decision is made: George will live with the cops, Ben with Eliot and Kate.
In its fealty to discretion, fascination with courtesy, and frustrated but genuine love for urban spaces, Love is Strange reminds me of Make Way With Tomorrow, Leo McCarey’s Depression-era account of seniors whose financial state makes imposing on their children impossible yet a nightmare from which there is no awakening; but also to the ways in which Yasujiro Ozu is alert to the shimmers of annoyance seen on a smiling relative’s face in Tokyo Story. Sharing a bunk bed with Eliot and Kate’s son Joey when the teenager is a pawn in the deteriorating relations between his parents is hell on Ben. For distraction he paints on the roof. For a subject he chooses Joey’s new best friend Vlad (Eric Tablach in a small but accurate performance). “That’s so gay,” Joey whines when he catches them, a remark that gains more instead of less irony when Kate explains it’s a catch-all for “stupid” while eliding the nature of Joey and Vlad’s own friendship. To the film’s credit, it confines itself to hints. Anyone who’s endured the kind, persistent questions from older relatives while trying to work will cringe in recognition at a scene when Ben asks the novelist Kate about her favorite short stories. Once again, Sachs does the unexpected: Tomei captures Kate’s cup-runneth-over irritation—she’s in the middle of writing when the interrogation starts—but she never blows. In the same way Sachs doesn’t concretize what the hell has got Eliot and Kate so pissed off at each other than his film commitments. Indeed, there’s a lovely almost throwaway moment when Ben walks in on a fraught discussion, refuses to take the hint, and lingers long enough in the hopes of being asked to join them for a glass of wine. He does, which provokes an impromptu valentine to a Busby Berkeley picture that Ben saw at a revival house and to which he had introduced Eliot on VHS years earlier. It made me like Eliot; it humanized him.
George’s situation is no less tense: the cops party like Glenn Frey and Don Henley in 1976. By nature a reserved man given to sudden eloquence when taking someone into his confidence, George endures late nights on the sofa that doubles as his bed. He understands the severity of their situation more than the dreamy Ben. Denied adequate conversation, he pours his intelligence into critiques of his music students’ work; he’s not cruel—he’s incapable of cruelty—but he doesn’t talk at the grade school level either, so one precocious girl studies him as if he were an exotic starfish. Love is Strange, honoring its title, stresses that Ben and George are only completely themselves with each other but this fact isn’t enough. It never is. And shouldn’t be.
Sachs, who directed 2012’s Keep Your Lights On and 2004’s Forty Shades of Blue, has little pictorial sense but he doesn’t much like close-ups—a blessing. I found Keep Your Lights On disjointed and diffuse, and Love is Strange does sometimes play like an exquisite HBO movie. This is the rare case of a movie often better written than directed. It gets poky in a couple of spots—mostly when Chopin played for long interludes—and the sunshine-on-a-cloudy-day ending courts kitsch, but I forgive Sachs because those spots happen to be when Georg and Ben are working (with a student and painting, respectively), and cameras so rarely gaze on characters doing what they love. The movie gains startling resonance with each plot crinkle. Favorite moments: over scotch and vodka tonics at Julius, a spontaneous mention of infidelity is staged and acted with a freshness and maturity I rarely see in American movies; and Joey’s yielding to suppressed grief on a stair landing, Christos Voudouris’ camera at a discreet distance. Lithgow and Molina have never been better. Give actors roles from which they can draw on their full intellectual resources and here are the results. And make movies which understand the interdependence of romance and finance.