Familiar Faces, by David Bax
Ira Sachs’ transcendent new film, Love Is Strange, starts out with a scope as big as the personalities of its two main characters, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), but narrows as it goes on. That’s not at all to imply that it forgets its original theses but rather that it drills down to their essence, recognizing that at the core of any political or social agenda, there must first be basic humanity.
Ben and George have been together for nearly 40 years when the movie starts and they are finally able to get married. The intimate warmth of this day, shared with as many friends and family as they can cram into the lovely little apartment they’ve long called home is soon overshadowed when George, the couple’s breadwinner, loses his job. George teaches music at a Catholic high school and, though the faculty and students have long known and not cared that he is gay, his marriage has come to the attention of the archdiocese. By wedding his lifelong love, he has violated the morality agreement he signed. Suddenly, George and Ben have to give up that cozy apartment and they find themselves living separately, crashing with friends and family until they can find a new place to call their own.
One’s ire may rise at the medieval injustice of what’s befallen Ben and George and that response makes sense. But such capital-I Issues aren’t the big ideas I referred to earlier. Sachs most assuredly wants his audience to take note here and register that homophobia doesn’t stop at the passage of a law. But, once noted, he has no interest in being pedantic about it.
No, what Sachs really chooses to explore is the balance one must strike between community or family on the one hand and individuality or coupledom on the other. Two people who have lived together for four decades have necessarily established their own sense of comfort. Suddenly forcing them to live with friends and family – especially those much younger than they are – is bound to challenge their sense of normalcy. Ben’s observation that, “…when you live with people, you know them better than you care to” is one of the film’s great, wry laugh lines but it’s also the crux of the idea Sachs is exploring. Maintaining a connection to humanity is key but so is having boundaries. Good fences make good neighbors, in other words.
As is the case with all great performances, it’s hard to imagine Love Is Strange without Lithgow and Molina. The actors’ shared mastery of minutiae, expression, mannerism and inflection makes Ben and George one of cinema’s great couples, instantly recognizable in their specificity.
Eventually, those particularities are where Sachs chooses to settle his focus. It’s not their being gay or having careers in the arts (Ben is a painter of very minor success) that make them so remarkable. Rather, it’s their understanding and wholehearted acceptance of one another’s individuality. When they go to a bar and know each other’s drink orders by heart, it’s a subtly moving nod to every long term relationship. Love may be strange but it’s the rare kind of strangeness that we all understand and desire.