There’s nothing overly complex or convoluted about Love is Strange. The plot itself is a very simple tale: a newlywed couple trying to make the most of a crappy situation and maintain the ties that bind them together. Oh, and it’s a same-sex couple.
Despite the premise, Love is Strange, much like Blue is the Warmest Colour, isn’t a film about pushing any sort of ‘agenda’ or making a big deal out of the fact that the couple is gay. What we do get is a very warm tale of love, separation and tolerance. We see the joys and hardships that come with getting older, but also the efforts people will go to maintain a connection with the people closest to them.
The film begins in Manhattan with our two main characters: Ben, played by John Lithgow, and George, played by Alfred Molina, getting ready for the big day. In an open park, the two are wed, and do so of their own free will after having spent 39 years together.
During the after party, Kate, played by Marisa Tomei, speaks of the first time she met Ben. Kate’s husband and Ben’s nephew, Elliot, played by Darren Burrows, had been filming people in ordinary scenarios. One day, he brought Kate to meet his uncle. From there, she met George and sees their long commitment as an example of love to be followed.
George teaches at the local Catholic school. One day, he’s called into the office of Father Raymond, played by John Cullum, to discuss the recent marriage. Father Raymond reads back the witness statement to illustrate his point that George’s recent actions have caused great concern within the church. People have known for years that George was in a relationship with another man, but word got to the Archdiocese Bishop after he saw a photo on Facebook. George must now be let go, effective immediately. Side note, the Archdiocese Bishop apparently uses Facebook. Who knew? Anyway, George, of course, is not happy. After all, the students grew up with him as their teacher. Despite the setback, George still believes, above all else, that Jesus Christ is his Lord and Savior.
So, time for an emergency family meeting. George and Ben now need a new place to live since Ben’s pension and George’s private piano lessons won’t be enough to pay rent. This means they’ll have to sell the apartment.
When the meeting ends, the rest of the family grapple with figuring out who will house Ben and George. After all, the two don’t drive anymore, so getting them around will be a challenge. Mindy, played by Christina Kirk, offers to house the two, but the others have their own ideas.
Following the new living situation debate, we end up at Kate and Elliot’s home where we’re introduced to their son, Joey, played by Charlie Tahan. Kate and Elliot have a nice home, but they’re barely able to speak to each other because both are busy with their respective projects. However, Joey and his friend, Vlad, played by Eric Tabach, have a bit of trouble studying at home. Why’s this?
Because Uncle Ben is sleeping in one of Joey’s bunk beds.
Elsewhere, George crashes with two cops: Roberto, played by Manny Perez, and Ted, played by Cheyenne Jackson. He’s given a crash course on Game of Thrones because I guess the movie needed a relevant show that it figured most were familiar with, but George is completely clueless. It also doesn’t help that the scene in particular takes place during Season 3 during Daenerys’ slow ascent to power. You don’t just start the show from there! But I’m getting way off topic. Roberto and Ted live life in the fast lane, but George prefers to keep things slow. When he speaks to Ben on the phone, both agree that when you live with people, you tend to learn more about them than you care to. Very true.
In an attempt to make conversation, Ben tells Kate that he ran into a friend of hers, Ada. Kate is trying to work, but she endures Ben for the sake of being nice. When Ben asks Kate to pick which of her own stories is her favorite, Kate doesn’t pick because she likes them all. Ben is the same way with his art. In that case, Kate says, Ben should start a new piece of art. However, Ben can’t work when someone else is around. Oh, is that so?
When Elliot returns, he apologizes to Kate for not receiving any of her messages since he’s been busy all day. Kate loves Ben for sure, but it’s hard for her to tell him to shut up.
So Ben and George meet with a developer about finding an affordable apartment. The developer suggests that the two get in touch with the DFTA- Department for the Aging. Yay, an entire apartment just for them.
On the roof of Kate and Elliot’s home, Ben paints a picture of the city before him while Vlad stands still as a statue. Joey comes to the roof and isn’t a fan of Uncle Ben’s art. In fact, he calls it gay. Not the homosexual kind of gay, but the ‘art is stupid’ kind of gay. That’s right. ‘Gay’ now means ‘stupid.’
Roberto and Ted host a party that George isn’t exactly a fan of, so he heads over to Kate and Elliot’s house as the two discuss an upcoming student field trip. George embraces Ben as the two reunite after being apart for so long.
So while Joey is forced to sleep on the couch for the night, Ben and George have pillow talk in the bunk beds about their respective new lives: they both hate them. Or rather, they just aren’t fans of them. George talked to the principal of the school about bringing back music. Ben still had any job offerings float his way. Ben asks George if he blames him for this mess, but of course he doesn’t. After 39 years, despite everything they’ve been through, the two still have each other.
And we’ll hold it there.
Again, there’s nothing really groundbreaking about Love is Strange. The story is very easy to follow and the characters are fun to watch. It tackles the issues of privacy and adapting to change. The film highlights the importance of bonds: how we strive to hold onto them when separated or realizing how unhappy we are when we do form bonds with people.
Like Ben tells George, when you live with someone, you learn more about them than you care to, and that’s exactly what happens here. We long to be close to people, especially if we manage to form strong bonds with them, but we don’t want to become overbearing to the point where we don’t give people their space. Ben and George are old, while everyone else around them is relatively young. As such, the two sides don’t always move at the same speed. When George is in the middle of a house party, we see that he’d much rather be sleeping on the couch instead of waiting for partygoers to leave. Sure, it’s great to bond with your elders, but sometimes you just want to have space to be alone with your thoughts. That’s exactly what Kate wants, but she can’t have because Ben, not needy at all, just wants to have a conversation. What he sees as friendly talk, she eventually sees as annoying. Not out of spite or anger, but out of losing patience.
Family is a key component of the film as we see relatives band together to help out one of their own. It may be an inconvenience, but they don’t give a damn about that because they care about Ben and George’s well-being. They’ll step in to help out, whatever it takes, regardless of what happens. These aren’t self-centered people too absorbed with themselves that they ignore helping their elderly relatives. The friends and family feel real and their support comes off as genuine. This is helped by the fact that they see Ben and George’s longstanding love as an example to follow.
Finding a place to live by itself is an uphill climb, but when you’ve just been fired, your significant other doesn’t work and affordable housing is next to impossible to locate, it’s understandable why Ben and George are so frustrated in their efforts to find a new home. This film feels very real and the characters come off as authentic as opposed to over the top.
I’ll say this now, Love is Strange is a gorgeous film, both visually and through its use of music. This is a very vibrant New York filled with colorful life and tons of hustle and bustle. Christos Voudouris’ cinematography makes certain scenes pop with life and the final shot is one of the most beautiful endings I’ve seen to a film in a long time. The use of Chopin helps establish the tone as light hearted, but often fills you with sadness.
While everyone in the cast is in top form, Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are just outstanding. They really do come off as a couple that’s been together for years and that’s reflected in their performances. Whether it’s the loving glances they give one another, how they comfort each other after being apart for so long and their bickering over drinks, I completely buy that these two have sustained a long-standing marriage. Nothing about them ever came off as over the top or forced.
Molina feels a bit more seasoned and down to earth, while Lithgow has his occasional moments to fool around, such as when he tells a bartender about a time he denied the State Liquor Authority, which he never did, in order to get a free drink.
I have no idea why this movie is rated “R.” There’s no sex or nudity in the movie. There’s some language, sure, but really, this could have gotten away with a PG-13 rating, in my opinion.
Again, Love is Strange is a very warm, heartfelt film that shows how two people maintain their happiness and love for one another, despite the whirlwind that is their life. This movie is about people first. There’s no message pushed forward, no arguments about religion and gay marriage, and no overly forced drama. It treats the marriage with respect and not as a prop. The movie feels real because of how genuine Lithgow and Molina come across in their performance, aided by an equally talented cast, strong direction and superb cinematography.
Love is Strange may not be revolutionary or try and force a message down your throat the way a film like Milk does, but it does leave you feeling warm inside. Ben and George go through so much, but if they still have each other, then their real life struggles are worth it. And as long as there’s still family and love, those are the ties that bind. And you’ll have a family in your heart forever. All my love to you, poppet. You’re going to be all right. Bye-bye.
Wait, that’s another movie…