Something wonderful happens in the final minutes of "Love Is Strange." A careful, humble examination of a marriage opens up emotionally, thanks in large part to co-writer and director Ira Sachs' use of a gorgeous lullaby, Chopin's Berceuse Op. 57 in D-flat major. From the moment a key supporting character at last allows himself to grieve the loss of a loved one, up through the ensuing 11 or 12 exterior shots, photographed on the streets of New York alive with renewal and young love, a good film transforms into a very good one. Many, I suspect, will be moved to tears by "Love Is Strange," which Sachs earns the hard way: not by amping up the dramatic situations, but by grace notes and quiet spells cast by all the right actors.
Co-written with Mauricio Zacharias, who worked with Sachs on the earlier (and worthwhile) feature "Keep the Lights On," "Love Is Strange" is extremely simple in its outline. It begins with Ben and George, readying themselves in their Manhattan apartment for the day ahead. It is a momentous one, though typical of Sachs' understatement, quietly so. Ben and George are tying the knot because the state now allows them to, and because they've been together nearly 40 years. And they love each other.
Then life intervenes. George, the one with the full-time job and the insurance, loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic institution because to the church an arrangement is one thing but a public declaration of homosexual love is another. The couple's apartment goes on the market, and like Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore in the devastating Depression-era film "Make Way for Tomorrow" (1937), Ben and George find themselves seeking the kindness of strangers and temporary quarters among friends and relatives.
Nobody in their circle has the room (or the generosity) to take both in, so while they search for a cheaper place to live, the men make do with separated lives. George ends up bunking with neighbors, NYPD police officers who are much younger and given to parties. Ben, who paints, lands with his nephew's tense family in Brooklyn.
"It's probably just a week or two. We'll find a new place, very soon." The way John Lithgow reads this line — he plays Ben, with a tenderness and reserve too rarely required of him — you know it's wishful thinking. Husband and husband talk on the phone and see each other when they can. George doesn't much like being the fusty house guest; Ben, meantime, takes the lower bunk in his young nephew's bedroom and becomes the boy's nudge, confidant and counsel as he navigates his way through a rough patch.
What's lovely about "Love Is Strange" is Sachs' skill at reminding us that life can so easily turn into an extended rough patch for so many. The director does so in a plaintive, easygoing way, without putting the screws to the audience. Alfred Molina plays George, wonderfully, as a man of patience and fastidiousness. While the film may be discreet to a fault in its depiction of a longtime couple's feelings for each other, neither is it dodgy or coy about what it takes to make it across the 40-year line.
Some of the developments in the narrative are more expedient than inspired; a chance encounter at a party, for example, resolves a major plot obstacle crisis in well under a New York minute. Sachs works by way of a clean progression of scenes, photographed with supple exactness by Greek cinematographer Christos Voudouris, treating his characters democratically. Ben's nephew is played by Darren Burrows, his distracted wife by Marisa Tomei (always a pleasure) and their son by Charlie Tahan. Sachs leave their story in the hands of this vulnerable boy in a way that makes sense. What he sees in his uncle's marriage is something he can't find closer to home.
Do not expect dynamic filmmaking from "Love Is Strange." It's about other things, and Lithgow and Molina are splendid, their eyes full of wisdom and experience. In one scene, at a Greenwich Village bar, Ben cadges a drink out of a bartender with a story of the pre-Stonewall era. It may not be true, exactly, but it works, and George gives his partner a there-you-go-again look that says it all. Progress can be measured different ways. Sachs measures it scene by scene, and by the way family and friends talk to one another, whether the subject is real estate or real love.
"Love is Strange" - 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language)
Running time: 1:38