'Love is Strange' is sweet sorrow

Matt Pais movie review: 'Love is Strange'

'Love is Strange'

'Love is Strange' (August 22, 2014)

3 stars (out of four)

“Love is Strange.” What a mild title. That makes me think of couples drinking tea in a garden, laughing during a story of the peculiarities of intimacy. Then toasting and smooching.

The movie is similarly restrained, a minor success that doesn’t quite become major. After nearly four decades together, Manhattan boyfriends Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) get married. They’re delighted, performing a singing piano duet of Dinah Washington and Brook Benton’s “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” during the reception at their apartment.

The jubilation doesn’t last long: Saint Grace Academy, the Catholic school where George works as a music teacher, fires him because of the Bishop’s discomfort with his newly married employee (even though George has worked there for more than a decade and everyone knew he was gay). Ben and George sell their apartment. With no better/more affordable options in the city while they look for their next residence, Ben sleeps on his great-nephew’s bunk bed and annoys his niece (Marisa Tomei) with constant chatter while George stays with friends (including Cheyenne Jackson), gay cops who favor somewhat louder nights than George would prefer.

Conflict remains at a certain distance through “Love is Strange,” which director/co-writer Ira Sachs delivers with delicate, judgment-free sympathy. Perhaps New Yorkers will get more out of the pair’s housing issue—to a Chicagoan, the problem of newlyweds being forced to live separately isn’t treated with enough urgency. How this impacts their state of mind is woven into certain scenes but never quite developed. The same goes for Joey (Charlie Tahan), Ben’s perturbed great-nephew who may have stolen books with his one and only friend. Sachs seems to want this subplot to reinforce the challenges that come with harboring secrets, but it doesn’t really fit.

All the acting is effortless, though, with even small characters portrayed very clearly. There is feeling throughout the movie, however muted. Even if there are aspects that could be more fully explored—including the fallout of George’s firing and another detail of Joey’s personal life—there are several insightful moments to compensate, like Lithgow’s face as Ben realizes he has nowhere to go in the home where he’s living but clearly intruding.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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