LOVE IS STRANGE opens with the wedding of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), a New York City couple of nearly 40 years who are finally enjoying overdue marital equality. However, the rest of the world still lags behind this social progress.
Even though George's sexual orientation has been known for years at the Catholic school where he teaches music, the imprimatur of marriage—and the public Facebook photos—prove too much for the archbishop, who fires George.
Now unable to afford their Manhattan apartment, the newlyweds are forced to live separately with friends and family until they can land new jobs or rent-controlled housing. George crashes with the gay cop couple living downstairs, while Ben moves in with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), his author wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their antisocial teen son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). The couple could live together with Mindy (Christina Kirk), Ben's headstrong niece, but that would require moving to—gulp—Poughkeepsie.
Paced by a Chopin piano score, the film focuses on the grace notes of life among daily internal and external family struggles. Kate can't concentrate on her writing for Ben's innocent yammering; Joey's parents are concerned that he's spending too much time with an older schoolmate (Eric Tabach), a tension exacerbated by Ben's presence. Meanwhile, a nocturnal visit from George doesn't lead to some profound dialogue with Ben, but rather to a night of simple bottom-bunk spooning.
Still, the film can wallow in these interludes like an aimless musical composition. Ira Sachs' filmmaking restraint is admirable, but he fashions a humdrum storyline in which little happens onscreen and key plot points occur off-screen.
Sachs also equivocates between making two different points: that gay couples face the same problems as everyone else and that they still cope with unique struggles. Both contentions are true, of course, but beyond the circumstances surrounding George's unemployment, the obstacles he and Ben face are little different than any other aging, cash-strapped New York City couple with contentious yet caring extended families.
The message of Love is Strange is that love, in any configuration, is universal. We all crave the warmth of our bedmate and the casual conversations that fill our days and years together. The romantic connection we form is emotional, financial—and, yes, familial. Lithgow and Molina's earnest, heartfelt performances carry a tone poem that is lovely, poignant and exceedingly un-strange.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Extended family."