These days, love and real estate seem to go hand in hand when it comes to U.S. cinema. Throw in encroaching old age and you have a winning film: an adult love story that many aged city dwellers can truly relate to. Considering that one in four Tokyo residents are older than 65, it’s no wonder older people are still flocking to the theaters to see “5 Flights Up,” starring septuagenarians Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as a couple dealing with housing problems in New York. And now here’s “Love is Strange,” a grittier and more realistic take on the formula.
Alfred Molina and John Lithgow star as George and Ben, an elderly Manhattan couple who decide to celebrate their more than 40 years of living together by finally — and officially — tying the knot. The very first scenes of “Love is Strange” are a tribute to their many years of companionship. Taking turns in the tiny bathroom of their Manhattan apartment, they seem to fit together like a set of very old cushions on an antiquated sofa. The couple have become so comfortable with each other’s presence that even the phrase “taken for granted” needs to be taken out and dusted. After quietly reminding each other that this is the day of their wedding, they go down to hail a cab and join their friends and family in a lovely al fresco ceremony.
Directed by Ira Sachs, whose track record shows a deep fascination with enduring relationships (“Keep the Lights On,” “Married Life”), “Love is Strange” tests the limits of George and Ben’s marriage almost immediately. George loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school for the sin of publicly acknowledging his homosexuality, and Ben, who is retired, can’t help financially. No longer able to pay the mortgage, the pair must sell their apartment and seek temporary shelter. No one in their circle of friends has space for the two of them (this is New York, after all), so George crashes on a couch in the apartment downstairs, which is rented by two young cop friends, and Ben moves into the Brooklyn apartment of his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). Here, Ben is allotted the upper tier of Joey’s bunk bed, but must make himself scarce when the boy brings his friends around.
One fact of life will sink in as you watch the plight of George and Ben: the older you get, the harder it gets — and it means just about everything. The people who had been so supportive at their wedding — the same people who had pledged their undying friendship — find it hard to accommodate the needs of an aging gay couple who only want some quiet time, privacy and, most of all, just to be together. There are also generational issues: the two cops can’t understand why George doesn’t want to stay up all night partying or watching endless “Game of Thrones” episodes. Kate, an aspiring novelist, resents Ben’s chatty intrusions when she’s trying to write, and matters are made worse while Elliot is away on business trips.
Everyone tries to be courteous and kind, but it’s obvious that the presence of two aging gentlemen serve to drag all sorts of inconvenient truths into the light of day, namely, Kate and Elliot’s fraying marriage and the question of Joey’s sexual persuasion. If George and Ben were 20 years younger, they would perhaps have been more flexible with the new situation and open to new experiences. As it is, the chips are down and the couple are even deprived of the comfort of being able to cry on each other’s shoulders.
In the end, you’ll see that the title is completely apt. Yes, love is strange, but thank the heavens for that. In a world where lives are increasingly swayed by mortgages and job security, the nonsensical weirdness of love may be our only salvation.