On paper, it might suggest a bad sitcom: two notorious hams--John Lithgow and Alfred Molina--as longtime lovers confronting the innumerable challenges of aging. On the screen, under the direction of the exceptionally talented Ira Sachs, it is a subtle, searching exploration of the lives of elderly gay men--a film that ranks with some of the most moving representations of senescent queers, such as Bill Condon's great Gods and Monsters (1998) and the Vanessa Redgrave segment of HBO's If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000). It is also one of the smartest depictions of gay marriage as a consequential institution--not a counterfeit affair but a binding proceeding with the power to end a career.
That's what happens at the beginning of Love is Strange: George (Molina), having married Ben (Lithgow), his partner of nearly forty years, loses his job as a music instructor at a Catholic school in New York City. According to the archdiocese, gay marriage is anticlerical in a way that "lesser" gay partnerships are not. George's employers have long known about his relationship with Ben, but marriage, in their minds, constitutes a formalized rejection of the church--not just a sin that may be forgiven. Confined to the office of Father Raymond (John Cullum), George tries to argue his case--tries to expose the hypocrisy that surrounds him. He doesn't get very far, however, and while he later attempts to drum up support from the parents of his former students, this sudden, music-inspired explosion of reformist zeal doesn't last very long. It is a measure of the film's unique achievement that Sachs and co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias refuse to extend George's activist impulse; further distancing their work from the realm of overheated melodrama, they employ an elliptical storytelling style, excluding momentous developments from direct representation and offering instead an almost Chekhovian focus on homey details.
As a director, Sachs evokes the masterly Robert Altman, as in an extraordinary sequence that takes us from George and Ben's quietly majestic wedding back to the Manhattan apartment that they share, and where their loved ones gather to marvel at the strength of their bond. Swelling with pride, Ben sings a favorite song to George's piano accompaniment, and minor characters amuse themselves with all manner of admiring observations. A later scene, in which a Russian-born boy, Vlad (Eric Tabach), encounters a compatriot and briefly, charmingly engages her in their native language, has a lovely throwaway quality that recalls some of Altman's best work--particularly his obvious affection for the random encounters of Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993). Seemingly digressive, it's the sort of moment that inspires confidence in a director; it rings experientially and emotionally true.
Critics have compared Sachs to another chronicler of New York City -- Woody Allen. Sachs' previous film, Keep the Lights On (2012), ends with former lovers running into one another on a Manhattan street, evoking the melancholy conclusion of Allen's Annie Hall (1977); Love is Strange includes a montage of New York landmarks--including the Brooklyn Museum--that recalls the Sam Waterston sequence in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), in which Waterston's character takes two friends on a guided tour of the Big Apple. But Sachs does what Allen can't (or won't): he sustains a bittersweet mood without the aid of words, orchestrating seemingly simple gestures that together tell a profoundly moving story. Love is Strange is full of quiet moments that are almost unbearably affecting: George, having walked in the rain, reuniting with the husband from whom circumstance has separated him, both of their heads trembling as they embrace in a tight shot; a troubled writer (played by the great Marisa Tomei) telling her neglectful husband that she'll gladly go to the movies by herself, and then staring into space, steeling herself for another day of disappointment; a formerly surly teenager, alone on a stairwell, starting to weep, swayed by sentiments that he may not understand.
If Sachs were a hack, Love is Strange would have George leading the fight against those who oppose gay marriage; the film would be full of Oscar-baiting speeches, and the end result would be a shrill, self-satisfied drama. In its final form, Love is Strange is a fitting tribute to the queer careers of Lithgow and Molina. Over thirty years after he played a transgender character, the former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Roberta Muldoon, in George Roy Hill's The World According to Garp (1982), Lithgow has provided a study of an aging gay man's devotion to his art--in this case, painting--as well as to his longtime partner; and over a quarter of a century after playing the self-despising Kenneth Halliwell, who murdered his lover, the playwright Joe Orton, in Stephen Frears' Prick Up Your Ears (1987), Molina has an opportunity to portray a considerably more dignified gay character, one whose victimization at the hands of a prejudiced institution does not define him, but instead suggests just one aspect of a richly complex life.