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Love is Strange

It’s so easy to get the wrong idea of what this movie is. First off there’s that terrible title, the only thing about Love is Strange that I disliked. It sets us up for a story about characters and situations that are bizarre or disturbing, when in fact just the opposite is true.

The title is even more unfortunate because it is attached to a film about two gay men, partners of four decades who as the film begins are taking advantage of New York’s new law that allows them to get married. Ben (John Lithgow) is retired, having never quite made a name for himself as a painter. George (Alfred Molina) teaches music at a Catholic high school, a job he loses when the diocese finds out about his marriage. (He is contractually obligated not to take a public position contrary to the teachings of the church.)

Unable to afford their mortgage, Ben and George have to sell their apartment, which they can do in much less time than it takes them to find a new one in their price range. In the meantime they need a place to live. And while they have friends and family who are happy to help, this being Manhattan no one has room enough for them both. So for the first time after decades of living together they have to live apart. Ben shares a bunk bed with his nephew’s son, while George gets the couch in the apartment of a pair of ever-partying young friends.

From this point, you might well expect—and dread—a melodrama about the downward spiral of people who can’t keep pace with the ever-quickening treadmill of American life, rendered more bluntly ironic after the hopefulness of the opening marriage. (If a comedy, in the classical definition, is a drama that ends in a wedding, what is a drama that starts with one?)

But director Ira Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias aren’t interested in making that movie. Much of Love is Strange succeeds by what it doesn’t do. The plot set-up is put in place quickly, and the film seldom lingers on meaningful events when it can simply establish in a line or two of dialogue that they happened. This biggest of these comes near the film’s end, and while it momentarily shocked me that Sachs and Zacharias would elide so much, I quickly appreciated that they had, refusing to exploit audience emotions that would be so easy to raise but to no useful end. The film takes in a lot of territory in exploring contemporary urban life, but at base it’s about who these two men are, not what happens to them or what they do about it.

That Ben and George are gay is almost beside the point, but not entirely; a reference to Stonewall-era activism reminds us, briefly but pointedly, of how much men of this age experienced in their lives. (The love that dared not speak its name is not yet the love that doesn’t need to.) I’d be hard pressed to name any better performances from either Lithgow or Molina, and that’s saying something. Between this and The Skeleton Twins (also opening this week), viewers who appreciate good acting are in for a most rewarding weekend.

Opens Friday at the Amherst Theater.

Watch the trailer for Love is Strange

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