Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been together for 39 years, enjoying a modest but happy life in New York City when, thanks to the Marriage Equality Act, they’re finally able to tie the knot. It’s a joyous event that unexpectedly and terribly leads to the pair losing everything they’ve built, leaving them broke and without a home at an age in which they expected to be coasting into their golden years together. They find themselves separated and couch surfing, keeping a toehold in Manhattan courtesy of the waning patience of friends and family, stealing moments with each other like furtive teenagers.
Love Is Strange, which opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, Aug. 22 (with more cities to follow), is a sneakily devastating new movie from director Ira Sachs about age, class, families of choice, and a city that’s become increasingly financially unforgiving. It’s a lilting story whose light tone and bright, sunny look are parallels to the cheery facades its two leads try to maintain in the face of increasing desperation. It’s one of the best films of the year so far, a haunting portrayal of how easily things you took for granted can slip through your fingers and the way that dozens of loved ones can still make for only a tenuous safety net when you fall.
Love Is Strange isn’t centered on Ben and George’s sexuality, though it’s a defining aspect of who they are and what happens to them. They don’t lead protests, they’re not activists or leaders in their community — they’re just a regular old couple, a painter and music teacher, and their experiences are that, their own, not made to be a stand-in for a broader issue.
While everyone knows George is gay at the Catholic school where he works, it’s, ironically, getting married that leads him to be fired, the priest apologetically noting the taking a stance counter to that of the church is a violation of the agreement he signed when taking the job, and that the bishop saw his wedding photos on Facebook. George is upset but doesn’t fight, assuming he can get another position elsewhere — but, with only Ben’s pension and George’s private lessons to live on, the pair can no longer afford to keep their apartment, and, thanks to complicated rules in their co-op building, they make very little money off its sale.
The vivid, haunting specificity of Ben and George’s story makes Sachs’ film so resonant — old friends Lithgow and Molina, both wonderful, make for an adorably convincing long-term couple who’ve spent more of their lives together than apart, neither ever having expected to have to learn how to sleep without the love of his life by his side. The movie starts with them on their wedding day, getting dressed in suits, a special variation on their morning routine, Ben looking for his glasses, the two walking up the avenue together, struggling to get a cab.
They’re surrounded by adoring friends and family who salute them as an example of love to which they aspire. And they’re the same people who are called into Ben and George’s apartment not long after the wedding, as the couple is forced to ask for help. (They’re also the same people who bicker afterward in the stairwell about who will take them in, not quite out of earshot.)
Ben ends up staying with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows) and his novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), sharing a bunk bed with their resentful teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). George crashes on the couch of their former downstairs neighbors Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Cheyenne Jackson), lovers and cops whose fondness for entertaining means he’s often left waiting them out until there’s no longer someone drinking a beer on his so-called bed.
Among the many things Love Is Strange does so sharply and well is mercilessly portray contemporary New York as a place in which people, no matter how well-meaning or generous, can’t help but be resentful over having to share the tiny spaces they’ve managed to carve out for themselves. Kate, who works at home, finds herself driven to distraction by Ben’s oblivious nattering while she’s trying to write, and George tries not to show any exasperation about how late his hosts have dinner and entertain in the room in which he has to sleep.
Ben and George have no place to be together — they hardly have any place to be, period, and some of the movie’s best scenes show how exhausting it is to have no place to retreat to: Ben hovering in the living room where Elliot and Kate are having a heated discussion, George sitting stoically on the sofa while Roberto and Ted have a party. You can only kill time outside for so long, and as Ben and George try to find a way to afford their own place, they look more and more worn, like they’re fading away.
What’s left for Ben and George, otherwise, is to leave the city — and the movie is careful to give them a niece in Poughkeepsie with plenty of room they choose not to take advantage of. It’s a slightly selfish choice, perhaps, to depend on the sparser resources of nearby loved ones than the more easily given ones of someone in the suburbs, but it’s hard to fault them. Ben and George chose life in New York — they’re childless, they love and take advantage of the culture and lifestyle it has to offer, but the escalatingly fast-paced, expensive reality into which they’re dumped makes it feel like the city no longer chooses them.
The New York in which Ben and George fell in love is gone, and it’s been given over to new generations of people wrapped up in their own lives and dreams, a place with little memory and no soft spots in which to easily retire. And it’s terribly sad to think that there’s no more room for the two of them, because they’re marvelous — still so in love, so attached to what they do, with stories and wisdom to offer. As bittersweet as Love Is Strange may be, it’s also incredibly gratifying to spend time in Ben and George’s presence — they’re characters who are impossible to forget.