Sometimes in a film in which two men are lovers, the actors are so emotionally detached and unconvincing that the viewer becomes dismayed, and even uncomfortable. But when the two men are John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, the adventure is a joy to watch.
In Ira Sachs’ profoundly moving love story, Love is Strange, these two consummate actors hug and kiss with affection, like any married couple that has been together for 39 years. But they consistently display their abiding tenderness and love as well. It’s delicately palpable and they convey it all with their eyes. No other couple, gay or straight, could do it better.
Their troubles begin when they decide to get married. George (Molina) is immediately fired from his job as the music director of a small Catholic school because even though all his colleagues knew about his private life, when it was no longer private (someone posted the news of the wedding on Facebook, for god’s sake!) the bishop became incensed. And so the income that supported the couple is cut off. And Ben (Lithgow)’s pension is not sufficient to carry the load or pay the rent.
Compelled to move from their comfortable apartment, they begin their peripatetic, and separate, wanderings. George finds a place to sleep on the living-room couch of raucous neighbors whose primary activity consists of throwing endless noisy parties. And Ben moves in with his nephew and niece-in-law and their belligerent teen-age son and sleeps in the bottom bunk in the boy’s tiny bedroom.
The niece, brilliantly and sympathetically played by Marisa Tomei, is a published author trying desperately to finish her latest book without overtly rebuffing Ben. He is understandably lonely and trying to connect with her by making what he considers pleasant small talk that she sees as dreary prattle.
Meanwhile, George is trying to find a job and an apartment they can afford.
It’s a heartbreaking story, beautifully told. With photography to match. Cinematographer Christos Voudouris makes of New York City a distinct delight, even with its swarming crowds, its impersonal high-rise apartment buildings, and the grimy rooftops their windows look down on. The city skyline at dusk and the glowing sunsets, however, apparently make it all worthwhile to inveterate New Yorkers like Ben and George.
In fact, their New York apartment had been filled with the art of the city, much of it produced by Ben. His inclination to paint, however, is stifled by the living conditions he now finds himself in. But in time he takes to the building’s rooftop and, wearing a floppy straw hat like Vincent Van Gogh, he begins to paint again.
As an aside, in the closing screen credits there is a list of five or six artists whose work appears in the film. Among the names of the artists is John Lithgow’s.
Ira Sachs, who co-wrote the screenplay (with Mauricio Zacharias) and directed the film, has made a stunning, idyllic love story and coming-of-age journey that is presented by a tightly connected ensemble. Because the film is slow-paced, however, it might have ended a bit sooner. There are several long closing blackouts that don’t quite close the film, but the multiple end scenes do serve to provide a semi-satisfying postscript to all that has gone before.
As Shakespeare might have said, “All’s well that nearly ends well.”
Love is Strange opened in a limited engagement at the ArcLight and the Landmark Theaters in Los Angeles last week. Watch for it when it opens at a theater near you.
Photo: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina on their wedding day