Ira Sachs has been around for a while, making movies such as the gay-themed “The Delta,” but his 2012 award-winning film “Keep the Lights On” thrust the gay director squarely onto the A-list of great filmmakers. Sachs has returned with his most mainstream film to date, “Love Is Strange,” opening Sept. 12 in Atlanta.

A hit at Sundance earlier this year, “Love Is Strange,” a Sony Pictures Classic release, looks at the topical issue of same-sex marriage. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina portray Ben and George, an elderly, long-term couple in Manhattan who, as the movie opens, get married in a lavish ceremony after almost 40 years together.

What should be the happiest moment of their shared life grows dark, however. George is a music teacher at a Catholic school, and when word of his marriage finds its way to the archdiocese, he is fired immediately.

The couple are forced, without the money George was bringing in, to sell their apartment and temporarily move in with family and friends. Ben, an artist, moves in with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows) and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), a novelist, in Brooklyn, while George takes a room with his gay cop friends Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez) downstairs. What seems a temporary arrangement lasts longer than envisioned, as they deal with trying to find a new place to live.

The films of Sachs are not for everyone. Like “Keep the Lights On,” also about a gay couple’s relationship, “Love is Strange” is an easier film to respect than it is to warm up to. It can be cold and distant and, frankly, a little arch.

Sachs’ movies lean more heavily on characters than on overt plot, yet one of the disappointments here is that Ben and George’s situation becomes almost a subplot in their own movie. “Love is Strange” has a few too many characters in its supporting cast, including Elliot and Kate’s young son Joey (Charlie Tahan), who has begun hanging out with Vlad (Eric Tabach), another kid from high school who is older and potentially a bad influence. Their scenes add little to the movie and could easily have been left out. Also, “Love is Strange” ends with bizarrely little resolution.

Written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, the film is filled with names, but Tomei and Jackson have roles that are thinly written. What keeps the movie interesting are the two leads, whose bond is palpable and often heart-breaking.

George and Ben feel like dinosaurs and their plight, late in life, is sad and real. “Love is Strange” is filled with great small moments—George in a house full of younger folks, feeling out of place, and running out to find Ben; Ben, trying to relax in a bunk bed, realizing he is in the way of another family. Lithgow and Molina are very compelling, together and separately; especially Molina, truly one of the underrated performers of his generation.

While the script he’s working with isn’t groundbreaking or always even smooth, Sachs, as a director, gives the central couple dignity without saccharine and sentiment. That he doesn’t want to turn this into a tearjerker is commendable.

The film has been the center of controversy of late over the recent decision by the MPAA to give it an R rating, despite its having no nudity, sex or violence. This is the second gay-themed film of 2014 to receive an R rating, after “G.B.F.” last winter, and it’s clear—sadly—that the MPAA regards anything gay as being for restricted audiences only.

On the heels of a summer season filled with disappointing fare and superheroes galore, “Love is Strange” comes as a relief: a refreshing, intelligent film for adults. It doesn’t live up to its massive hype, but thanks to Lithgow and Molina, it’s a moving, often triumphant work.

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