Love at the movies usually concerns the romantic life of young couples. Not so with Ira Sachs’s new film, Love Is Strange. This director’s love story explores and celebrates the long-abiding love of two aging men, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina). The film, which opens this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, offers viewers an unusually rich view of urban domestic life. Love Is Strange opens on the morning of Ben and George’s wedding in Manhattan. The camera work quickly signals that while this couple’s world may not include the usual Hollywood signifiers — movie-star good looks and youthful, toned bodies — it seeks out unusual perspectives and lingers in unexpected places. The film lovingly immerses the viewer in the urban landscape that is so much a part of this gay couple’s life together, in some of the ways Woody Allen has paid tribute to New York in his movies. By relying on Chopin and other classical music, the soundtrack reinforces yet another element of the couple’s world, since George is a piano teacher and choral director.
The post-wedding party, held at Ben and George’s co-op apartment, uses none of the clichés so often found in movie versions of parties. Instead it introduces us to the couple’s distinctive extended family. Ben’s nephew Elliott (Darren Burrows), a filmmaker, is there with his novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenaged son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), whose remarkably subtle performance will make the viewer realize how inauthentic most movie teenagers are. On George’s side are Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez), the gay cop couple that are George and Ben’s next-door neighbors. The slightly kookie Mindy (Christina Kirk) is significant primarily for living outside of Manhattan, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. What is important about Ben and George’s extended family is that they are recognizable less for their connections to gay culture than to any middle class world.
The classic model for romantic comedy keeps its putative couple at odds, or at least apart, at the start and ends with their happy union. Mr. Sachs up-ends that convention by starting with marital bliss and finishing with separation. The switch is particularly appropriate for a gay couple, since Ben and George have already lived together happily and successfully for many years, while their marriage marks society’s recent legitimization of gay marriage. The twist that separates Ben and George physically, if not emotionally, situates the story in the real world, where bigotry rears its ugly head even in the wake of social change.
George loses his job at a Catholic school because his marriage defies Church doctrine. Like so many other Americans, George and Ben (who is retired) are then tossed on the shoals of economic distress. They must sell their co-op apartment and move in with family and friends. The world of New York real estate being the space-challenged place that it is, no one has enough room to house both members of the couple. Ben, a chatty amateur painter, ends up with his nephew and family, sharing bunk beds with a resentful Joey, and workspace with novelist Kate. George, who favors solitary pleasures, finds himself on the sofa of his ex-neighbors, Ted and Roberto, who always seem to have a party in the making. The friction caused by overcrowded living arrangements generates plenty of gentle humor.
Love Is Strange’s masterful acting, headlined by Lithgow, Molina, and Tomei, brings rare depth to this story of domestic life. It is a quintessentially modern story, one told with care and great affection rather than sentimentality or melodrama.
Love Is Strange, Friday, October 24, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, October 25, 4 p.m, M.V. Film Center. For more information, see mvfilmsociety.com.