Love is Strange Dir. Ira Sachs

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2014]

Styles: drama, comedy, domestic upheaval
Others: Keep the Lights On, Margaret, Married Life

Lightly comic and lightly affecting, Ira Sachs’s keenly observed Love is Strange belongs, in some ways, among rarified company. As an urban, urbane drama keenly attentive to its social milieu, the film invites comparison to two recent and superlative New York Films: Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Like those works, Love is Strange seems to effortlessly inhabit an authentic sliver of city life. Its protagonists — longtime aesthetes, partners, and newlyweds Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) — are the owners of a modest but lovely and tastefully decorated Manhattan co-op. Their nieces and nephews and neighbors follow other types recognizable to New York Times Style section readers: one has moved to a large house in Poughkeepsie; another inhabits an overhauled apartment in Brooklyn near the East River; Ben and George’s downstairs neighbors are a pair of kindly gap cops. When these and other characters attend Ben and George’s wedding at the beginning of Love is Strange, the sense that we’re among a distinctive but familiar collection of progressive, creative, pragmatic, and open-minded individuals is palpable. We know them, even though we’ve barely met them.

Such is the easy but carefully wrought intimacy of the film. As its modest plot advances, Sachs’s attention to detail — aesthetic and emotional — remains unassailable. George is fired from his job, teaching music at a Catholic school, after publicly announcing his love and sexual orientation. Facing a cessation of steady income — Ben takes retirement, and is an artist — the couple are forced to sell their co-op and board with friends and family while searching for a new home. Ben takes shelter in Brooklyn with his filmmaker nephew Elliott (Darren E. Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). Their situation evolves into a fraught but unavoidable conflict of mutual imposition; there simply isn’t enough space for everyone to remain happy. Meanwhile, George moves downstairs with his cop neighbors. He is happy on a couch, until the youth of his new boarders catches up with him. Every particular of these situations, and these characters, is considered: Kate reads the new Claire Messud novel in bed; Joey is in the midst of experimenting with having a new friend; George excitedly learns about Game of Thrones and more reluctantly plays the wallflower during a Dungeons and Dragons party. Sachs’s overriding theme becomes one of domestic and emotional privacy, exploring the many ways in which we are and aren’t ourselves when we’re jostled out of daily routines and occasional pleasantries. We rarely see Ben and George together after their abrupt separation, and when we do, the sense of relief and overdue catharsis upon their reunions is powerful.

But just as Love is Strange seems to strike every nuanced chord perfectly, the film’s tenor of careful and modest calculation becomes a bit of a drag. Sachs’s film is observant, but never daring and too rarely surprising. It’s a comedy of manners where all the manners seem preordained: Sachs and his actors establish character so quickly and ineffably that there’s little room for them to grow or evolve over the course of the film. Molina’s George becomes trapped in a series of underplayed and underdeveloped sitcom scenes, while Lithgow’s Ben comes to inhabit a home that is prickly from the outset, and overdue for a few meltdowns. Only Joey, the uncertain and moody teen who Ben comes to share a bunk with, offers the film a few ongoing and elemental uncertainties of character and motivation. Sachs shrewdly and devastatingly pivots to Joey’s fraught searchings for identity and affection, but his adults are wistful and static. Love is Strange allows us to observe their identities being compromised, but the film is too orchestrated to argue that any of them remain a work in progress. It lacks the nerve of its recent cinematic forebears, which afforded its characters the dignity both to suffer and cause indignities mundane and major. Amid the formidable loveliness of Love is Strange, there’s a lurking sense that Sachs’s film is too tender and minor-key to reckon with this essential stuff of life.

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