Leo Tolstoy's line "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" could be applied to romantic relationships as well—especially if you're not in a good one. From the outside, a happy marriage can look like an aberration, a fluke, or just dumb luck. Because so much of fiction is devoted to complicated relationships, we're usually suspicious of one that appears blissful: They must be hiding something. But as someone fortunate enough to be in a happy marriage, I can say that such happiness bring with it its own perils: chiefly, that lingering-in-the-background fear that it won't last. After all, even people in happy marriages have been through atrocious relationships in the past. We remember.
The chief beauty of Love Is Strange is that while it focuses on a happy couple, it's really about the idea of a happy couple, the notion of what romantic fulfillment might look like and how hard it is to achieve. Even the film's happiest couple has to struggle to maintain their bliss.
The film, a huge hit at this year's Sundance, is the latest from director Ira Sachs, whose last movie, 2012's Keep the Lights On, was the other side of the coin, examining a troubled relationship undermined by drug abuse, immaturity, and an inability to let go. Love Is Strange exists in a much more hospitable environment, but it's equally wise about the hold that intimate connections have on us.
The movie opens with the joyous wedding of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), a New York couple who have been together since the early 1970s. They're the fun-loving center of a close-knit community that adores them. Ben and George have a great relationship; they're among the lucky ones. But no couple is immune to obstacles: George teaches at a Catholic school that promptly cans him once his gay marriage becomes public. (In a sign of the movie's matter-of-fact treatment of once-hot-button issues, everybody at George's school knew he was gay, and nobody cared. It's just the out-of-touch higher-ups who got angry.)
With Ben a painter of modest means, they now no longer have the money to pay for their great apartment, and are forced to crash at their friends and families' places. Ben hangs out with his nephew (Darren E. Burrows), his wife (Marisa Tomei), and their rebellious son (Charlie Tahan); George sleeps on the couch of two gay cops, played by Manny Perez and Cheyenne Jackson. This means that Ben and George are separated for the first time in decades, which quickly leads them to realize how lost they feel without one another. It's not just having to get used to the rhythms of other people's home lives that's difficult. Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias deftly pinpoint the ways in which a long-term couple becomes its own entity—living apart, that entity is endangered, the foundation of one's being shattered.
Sachs' previous films, also including 2005's Forty Shades of Blue, have been darker in tone, wielding a dim view of love's potential. But getting married and becoming a father has clearly changed the man's worldview. Love Is Strange could be his Hannah and Her Sisters or his take on Mike Leigh's Another Year: autumnal movies about the heart's perseverance that come by their happily-ever-after spirit by first acknowledging all the internal and external obstacles that can grind down a love affair.
The lighter temperament can be a little jarring at first. In his best movies, Sachs has honestly but also bleakly depicted characters who bring about their own anguish, whereas this is the closest he's ever come to a crowd-pleaser, and he's aided by two of our most likable actors. Without an ounce of cutesiness—Love Is Strange has zero interest in trying to wring laughs from the fact that straight actors are pretending to be an old gay couple—Lithgow and Molina nicely capture the feel of lovers who have been together so long that they've moved to a stage of supreme oneness. George is the gentler, more composed partner, while Ben seems to be flailing badly in his new situation. (Lithgow makes him wonderfully impossible, as his constant idle yammering quickly turns him into a nightmare for Tomei's working-from-home author.)
The result can be a bit broad in its sense of hell-is-other-people comedy, but throughout, Sachs underpins the story with a striking sense of curiosity and sadness. While Ben and George are struggling to return to their former blissful selves, those around them are having problems staying afloat emotionally. The couple's forced departure from their apartment stirs up surprising animosities within their circle, and Ben's arrival at his nephew's home seems to exacerbate tensions within that family. Ben and George may be having a tough go of it at the moment, but in comparison to everyone around them, they've got it great. The film's Chopin piano score is lovely, but it's also wistful and diaphanous, as if the music itself knows how fleeting love can be.
Like its supporting characters, Love Is Strange looks at the central couple with a certain kind of wonder and befuddlement. There's nothing inherently better or more remarkable about either man—and Ben certainly can be a handful—and yet, somehow, they've managed to make it work. Part of me was drawn to Sachs' previous films because of their pessimism about love, which seemed more true to my own experience. Look around and you see divorce, breakups, loneliness—love very rarely conquers all. With Love Is Strange, he is no less awed by love's complexity and uncertainty, but he reveals an openness that's cheering, and perhaps a better way of getting through life. At the end of Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen's character, finally in love and happy, says, "The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle." That didn't mean he understood it any better than the rest of us, and here, Sachs seems fine not understanding.
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