In Leo McCarey's 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow (a classic that in turn inspired Yasujiro Ozu's masterpiece Tokyo Story), an elderly couple lose their home during the Depression and can only be accommodated by living separately with their different children.
In Love Is Strange, the children become the extended family and friends who have formed a community around long-time companions George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow).
The loving and committed couple, who have been together 39 years, decide to marry. This legal acknowledgment of a decades-long reality triggers a financial event that undermines the stability of their life: George is the music teacher at a Catholic school and while the archdiocese and its code of moral conduct tacitly looked the other way for years, their new official status cannot be ignored. They fire him. Full-time jobs are scarce and since he is the main breadwinner, the couple can no longer afford the co-op apartment where they have lived for nearly 20 years.
Director Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On, Forty Shades of Blue) and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias have modified the social context to reflect modern realities – the New York State marriage laws that recognize same-sex union and the vagaries of the city's real estate – but this is not a strident film; it's about subtle performances. The details feel more incidental than anything, offering only a quiet condemnation of injustice and hypocrisy that, as the couple has had to for 40 years, is taken in stride.
In every other way but this, the moving love story is traditional: The opening question is whether they'll make it to the ceremony on time, but their wedded bliss proves not a beginning but the fulfilment of a lifetime – the beginning of an ending.
Their reversal of fortune also has consequences for other people, chiefly Ben's nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and his family, who initially welcome Ben into their airy Brooklyn loft conversion. Chatty Ben bunks with their awkward teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan), who is territorial and craves privacy, and his running monologue grates on novelist-wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) as she attempts to write in their open-concept home. George takes up private music lessons in their old block and couch-surfs with their former downstairs neighbours, a younger gay couple who are well-meaning but have a relentlessly energetic social life.
Challenged by mere geography, Ben and George's love has withstood decades of larger obstacles. Each tries to retain dignity under the circumstances, separated from their comfortable routines and from each other's affection, and attempts to integrate into the rhythm of their respective households. As time passes and the temporary becomes the new normal, however, welcomes wear thin. The distance between George and Ben does not diminish or threaten their love, but the polite veneer on the continued disruption gets tense and exposes the weaknesses of relationships around them.
Throughout, Sachs is quietly observational – the film's emotional power coming from its rich but unshowy performances, like George briefly giving in to exhausted sadness while teaching Chopin, or standing in the kitchen sipping soup while yet another party rages in his makeshift bedroom before travelling in a rainstorm to seek brief but necessary solace with Ben. That's part of the delicacy of this love story – its gentle, naturalistic direction. Yet after so many scenes patiently and closely observed in close quarters, the film's abrupt coda feels rushed. It might instead have lingered longer and well past twilight, as George and Ben walk side by side down a narrow street in downtown Manhattan, gradually receding and dwarfed by the buildings, the city, the disappointment and sorrow of life.