Review: 'Love Is Strange'

Three and a half stars

Marital domesticity is tough enough. Add in the obstacle of Kafkaesque sociopolitical forces -- still the lot of many gay couples -- and any marriage would feel the strain. That's the lot of a gay couple in Ira Sachs' new film "Love Is Strange": Two men have each other, they have friends and family and they have a heap of trouble.

The trouble arrives when Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), after 39 years together, "make it official" by seizing on their new legal right to marry. That's all well and good, except that George works as a music teacher for a Catholic school, and when word of his marriage to a man reaches an unhappy bishop, George's superior Father Raymond (John Cullum) fires him, invoking the "Christian witness statement" George signed when he took the job.

In a scenario suggested by Leo McCarey's "Make Way for Tomorrow" (and scripted by Sachs with Mauricio Zacharias), sudden financial insecurity forces Ben and George to give up their Manhattan apartment and throw themselves on the mercy of friends and family. Ben heads to Brooklyn to live with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), Elliot's novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their touchy teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan), while George moves in with former neighbors and good friends, the gay-cop couple Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez).

What follows depicts realistically strained marriages, both gay and straight, and the growing "strains" of a teenage boy learning that the title of the film is true, all to the elegant strains of Chopin. Though the confident, patient approach is vintage Sachs, the cozy mundaneness and self-possession of the central characters signal a new tone that isn't shy about playing comic notes to balance the dramatic ones. Gentle comedy drifts into serious drama, but for all the pain that transpires, the film ends on a high of unambiguous uplift.

Along the way, Sachs proves again that he is an actor's director, warmly showcasing his two leads and inviting great supporting turns (especially from Tomei and Tahan). Lithgow, playing a slightly older 71, imbues Ben with colors of physical, mental and emotional frailty that make his various struggles all the more poignant. As the stiller half of the couple, Molina productively underplays, the better to move us with an inevitable break under pressure.

The film may seem to be doing very little, but it evinces great sensitivity (even as it is partly a story about the harms of insensitivity, by institutions and amidst families) as it explores a universal theme of dealing with life's unexpected derailments and trying to get back on track. It's about the state of the gay union, as well, and of course, about that title. Through his love of dramatic form, Sachs lives up to the scripture he quotes: "Love does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth."

Rated R for language. One hour, 34 minutes.

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