You could be forgiven, after watching the opening minutes of Ira Sachs’s fine-grained and flinty Love Is Strange, for thinking it’s going to be a movie about Gay Marriage, with all the import those initial caps imply. We see two older men, clearly a couple, roll out of bed in what is immediately identifiable as a Manhattan apartment. But in movie-signpost terms, it’s not the kind of New York digs we’re used to seeing: This isn’t an air- and light-filled Tribeca loft, or one of those costly Brooklyn brownstones where allegedly “average” families live. In fact, its major features — artwork and books and a piano — render it as vaguely anonymous but also, in a stroke of pure New York shorthand, pinpoint it as a place where two intellectually and culturally curious people of average means have lived forever, because there’s no way they could afford it otherwise.
The pair begins to dress for what is clearly not an average day. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) put on suits that square perfectly with who they are, even though we don’t yet know who they are: Ben’s pale, gently rumpled poplin and George’s more dapper (and more sober) brown three-piece jibe with the way they walk, and with their past–middle-aged shapes — the clothes are as used to their bodies as these two are used to one another. They leave the apartment and immediately begin to bicker and debate, right on the street, in the most New York of ways: “We’re going to be late.” “We’ll be fine.” “I knew we should have hired a car.” “Don’t run, I don’t want to get all sweaty.” This is how marriages begin between partners who have known each other forever. Mazel tov!
Love Is Strange is partly a movie about gay marriage: The guests radiate genuine happiness that their friends are finally able to legally marry. But really, Sachs — who co-wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, also the co-writer of his last film, 2012’s Keep the Lights On — has made a movie that’s both more broadly and more specifically about love, New York, and real estate, perhaps not even in that order: For those who live here, it’s hard to know how to index those things, they’re so inextricably bound. That’s the mercurial beauty of Love Is Strange: It’s about things that actually matter in life and in a partnership, including the debit column in the checkbook.
Ben and George’s wedding is a happy occasion for everybody, even for them, once they put their bickering on pause. But as it turns out, the wedding day is only the beginning of new troubles: George teaches music at a Catholic school, but he’s dismissed for having defied the fossilized tenets of the Church. Ben is an underemployed painter, which means the pair’s finances aren’t exactly robust, and they need to downsize. They decide to sell their apartment — a flat that must have looked average in the mid-1980s, when they moved in, but now seems like a marvelous, cozy palace, given Manhattan real estate costs — and move into something smaller. But even with the proceeds of that sale, finding an affordable “something smaller” proves difficult. For practical reasons, they split temporarily until they can find a new home: Ben goes to live with his nephew, filmmaker Elliott (Darren E. Burrows), who’s married to novelist Kate (Marisa Tomei, giving a prickly, appealing performance). The two have a shy teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), who’s at that stage universally known as awkward. The family’s apartment is sleeker and more upscale than the old one Ben shared with George, but it’s still none too large — he folds himself to fit the bottom tier of Joey’s bunk bed, but there’s no way he can make himself invisible.
George has problems of his own in his temporary digs: He has moved in with younger friends (played by Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), a couple who happen to be cops, and whose lively nighttime socializing extends long past George’s normal bedtime. These are all people who care about one another deeply, yet everyone feels cramped. Ben calls George in a fit of homesickness: “It’s just that when you live with people, you know them better than you care to.”
It’s hard enough for kids in their 20s to spend a month or so on a friend’s couch. But for adults who have lived on their own for years, it’s a special kind of humiliation. Ben and George trudge out dutifully to apply for moderate-income housing that they don’t have a chance of getting. George searches, fruitlessly, for a new job. Ben tries to paint in his temporary quarters, but the family raises a collective eyebrow when he enlists one of Joey’s friends (Eric Tabach) as a model. These are people who pride themselves on their liberalism yet have very strong opinions about what’s “appropriate,” unable to make allowances for the reality that older people — painters, certainly — often love to look at younger people.
Ben and George don’t fight about money, but money — or, rather, the lack of it — has torn a hole in their lives. It’s through their separation that Sachs captures the texture of their partnership, and Molina and Lithgow, in performances that rank among the best of their careers, fill in all the colors and shadows. Molina’s George is both more practical and more retreating — he doesn’t fight back when he loses his job, as it’s simply not in his nature to push that hard. He’s not a chump, though: As Molina plays him, we see an inexhaustible well of kindness in his eyes. But we also see his frequent frustration — with his partner, with their situation, with everything — and thank God it’s there: Exasperation can be a survival tactic, and Ben and George need, above all, to survive. Lithgow’s Ben is crabbier, flightier, more stubborn but also, perhaps, more generous. He picks at George but only to a point. When he stops himself, his affection pours out, as if it were something only thinly (and badly) disguised by his grouchiness. His loyalty comes with barbs attached, but the barbs are what make it stick.
At one point, Ben and George dress up and go out on a date: First, there’s a concert at Merkin Hall. Then they pull up to the bar at a place a friend identified for me as Julius, in the West Village. In the course of this evening, they argue mildly over the interpretation of the music they’ve just heard; they have a disarmingly direct and tender conversation about infidelity, unlike anything I’ve ever heard in a movie. Then they part ways, each going off to their temporary digs, at the West 4th Street subway station, right outside the beckoning neon of the Waverly Restaurant.
These are the landmarks of their lives, marking landmarks in their lives. Sachs and his performers know that the perfect marriage is a thing of phantom beauty — it doesn’t exist, yet we persist in believing that someone out there must have it. The great tragedy, and the wonder, of the tragic, wonderful institution of marriage is that sometimes it is perfect but only for minutes at a time. If you insist on looking for perfection, it was last spotted on the corner of Waverly and Sixth.