Ira Sachs’ “Love is Strange” is a situational drama, meaning the film wants to tease insight and poignancy out of fleeting moments amid an on-going “situation.” There is no capital-I Issue here. Rather there are small issues that underscore larger ones.
The film begins pleasantly enough as you witness the wedding of a couple who’ve been together 39 years. Since New York’s marriage laws now permit gay marriages, Ben and George — played with quiet dignity and feeling by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina — can at last — at last! —tie the knot.
Which has the unintended consequence of forcing them to split up.
It seems George had a secure job as a Catholic school music teacher despite his sexual orientation until he so publicly declared his commitment. The archdiocese demands his firing. The couple’s finances are precarious enough that this income loss forces them to sell their lower Manhattan co-op.
Momentarily homeless, the two must separate physically: George stays in the building, where two gay cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez) offer him a couch, while Ben moves in with the family of his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows).
George struggles to find work and reasonably priced digs in New York’s unforgiving real estate market. Meanwhile Ben fits poorly into the lives of his temporary family.
His nephew’s novelist-wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) can’t work with his non-stop chatter and her temperamental teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan) resents sharing a room with a 71-year-old man.
Sachs’ strategy in a screenplay he wrote with Mauricio Zacharias is to focus on the in-between incidents of this situation, the smaller moments that indicate the larger ones. Some of the story’s major developments even occur off-camera.
It’s akin to sitting a viewer down in a living room easy chair to watch the comings and goings of a family over a period of time: You may not grasp everything you see but you get the general picture.
The downside, of course, is that some things never get resolved or even fully understood. Joey appears to be involved in a long simmering dispute with his parents over his friendship with a sightly older Russian immigrant kid (Eric Tabach). Then French books stolen from his school wind up under his bed.
Either that storyline suffered in the editing room or Sachs wants to imply things without fully explaining them. Similarly, the gay cops and the nephew and his wife remain remote, their lives a virtual abstraction.
Is Elliot really having an affair or are you just imagining it? Is Kate worried her own son might be gay? If so, would this be a reflection of latent homophobia?
If the pace were quicker, one might not notice these missing story pieces. But Sachs chooses to move his scenes ever so slowly, forcing one to reflect possibly too much on what transpires and what significance the filmmaker sees in these moments.
What is his overall point? That for all the liberalization of marriage laws, gays still suffer from discrimination? That absence does make the heart grow fonder? That the filmmaker wants to pay tribute to New York’s gay heritage? Or that New York real estate values are ridiculous?
Agreed on all counts. But the movie sparks to life mostly when the two men find moments to share rather than experiencing moments of despair. Certainly these two veteran actors call on years of experience to give these ingratiating characters their life force.
Ben, who’s retired, is an amateur painter who escapes to the rooftop of his new Brooklyn flat to paint a teenager — the son’s dubious friend — holding a skateboard. This painting takes on increasing significance in the film, serving as a wedge between Ben and Joey, then a means for Joey to reach out to George later.
The film ends strangely with an out-of-nowhere apartment materializing, leading to an apparent happy ending, only for a more sobering downbeat one to emerge, again with its major event happening off-camera.
Films that defy so many cinema conventions are a rarity so one must applaud Sachs, something of an indie darling anyway, for his conviction to go against the grain.
But I think he may have sacrificed some of the charm and poignancy of his core story — that of two people unable to marry for so many, many years, then thrust into a wrenching separation due to their new “freedom.”
However, the movie feels real every minute it’s on screen. The homes are lived-in, the characters authentic, life situations messy and the New York vibe evident in every detail.
Every significant character is in transition and none is the least bit comfortable. This is not high drama but rather, as I said, situational where momentary exigencies and setbacks reveal character.
The music of Frédèric Chopin plays continually throughout, sometimes louder than one would wish, making dialogue hard to hear. The tone is that of understatement and quiet contemplation. The film is edited with little jumps here and there to get to those moments where Sachs wants the focus to be.
But even these are glancing, sometimes hesitant and fragile. Life as it happens rather than life as dictated by a highly structured screenplay. Even when it perplexes, “Love is Strange” is tonic in a summer of overhyped cinema.
Opens: August 22, 2014 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production company: A Fortissimo Films, Parts and Labor presentation in association with Faliro House Prods., Film 50, Mutressa Movies, RT Features, the San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation
Cast: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Darren Burrows, Charlie Tahan, Cheyenne Jackson, Manny Perez, Eric Tabach
Director: Ira Sachs
Screenwriters: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Producers: Lucas Joaquin, Jay Van Hoy, Ira Sachs, Jayne Baron Sherman
Director of photography: Christos Voudouris
Production designer: Amy Williams
Costume designer: Arjun Bhasin
Editors: Michael Taylor, Affonso Goncalves
R rating, 94 minutes