“Love is Strange” may strike a special chord with Charlotteans, as it’s about what happens after a Catholic church fires its gay music director for marrying a man. We’re the city – well, a city – where a Catholic Church (St. Gabriel) fired its gay music director in 2012 for marrying a man.
But director Ira Sachs, who wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, has more in mind than discrimination. They’ve made a movie about the way we decline when we no longer have security, the impositions on family that strain relationships, the nature of love tested by separation. You need not be gay to see yourself in these people.
George (Alfred Molina), a music teacher and choral director, and Ben (John Lithgow), a retired painter, live in a Manhattan apartment after nearly four decades together. The church turns a blind eye until the two men solemnize their relationship, then dumps George.
The men can’t pay their rent on Ben’s pension and George’s part-time work, so they move out: Ben to live with nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and his wife and son, George to stay with two gay cops whose loud and rowdy parties are no place for a Chopin fancier. (He has to be told what “Game of Thrones” might be.)
The film reminds us how fast old people decline after an upheaval. For all their kindness, Ben’s family can scarcely accommodate him, and he ages perceptibly. George fares better, because he’s a decade younger and doesn’t incommode his roommates, but the change saps his vitality, too.
Sachs treats every character with sympathy, even the priest who fires George (John Cullum). You understand why Elliot, wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and son Joey (excellent Charlie Tahan) find Ben an inevitable nuisance: He keeps everyone at the table by eating at a snail’s pace, chats so much she can’t work on the novel she’s writing and hogs Joey’s best friend by asking him to pose for a painting.
The movie ends so abruptly you might wonder if a piece is missing, and it relies on one extraordinary coincidence I couldn’t swallow. Yet scene by scene, I found people I knew or wish I knew: Ben’s romantic advice to the straight but awkward Joey would give any boy confidence about himself.
Christos Voudouris, the cinematographer who shot “Before Midnight” for Richard Linklater, makes Manhattan seem as sumptuous as rural Greece. The use of Chopin, similar to Woody Allen’s use of Gershwin in “Manhattan,” overlays the movie with a romantic glow that makes us warm to the characters.
And by the end, when love is in the air again, we realize the title is meant ironically. Love isn’t strange, after all. It’s something for which we all hope, to which we’re all entitled, and which almost all of us have the power to achieve.