Ensemble piece ‘Love is Strange’ examines modern relationships

“Love is Strange” (2014) is an unorthodox but welcome look into modern day relationships and love. The film, directed by Ira Sachs, gives an unconventional yet recognizable portrait of each and every one of us, turning the silver screen into a silver mirror.

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) must deal with the unexpected consequences of finally getting married after being together for nearly forty years. As a result of the union, George loses his teaching job at a Catholic school, forcing the pair to leave the New York City apartment they can no longer afford. Though the couple’s bond has now been solidified by matrimony, they must spend time apart living in friends’ and relatives’ homes. Ben moves to Brooklyn to live with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), Elliot’s writer wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their anxious teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan) … who also happens to be Ben’s new roommate. George bunks with another gay couple, two cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez) who live just downstairs from their old apartment. While searching for a new apartment in the ruthless New York City real estate market, Ben and George must learn to step out of the comfortable bubble they had lived in together for decades.

While perhaps seeming a bit lackluster, the plot is not essential to the film, which acts as a modern day examination of love in the 2010s. It might surprise some that “Love is Strange” does not rely much on the protagonists’ sexual orientation, providing an examination of love that tends toward universality. “Love is Strange” could easily veer into the political realm when George is fired from his job, but instead remains relatively neutral with regards to religious and political stances on homosexuality. In particular, George maintains his faith despite being persecuted by the church — a nuanced and interesting response that subtly defies heavy-handed, absolutist morality sometimes proscribed to viewers in recent films.

It may be a little early to say, but this might just be our generation’s version of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” (1979). While Woody Allen examined intergenerational relationships by dating a teenage girl and also seeing a woman his age — on screen and in life — “Love is Strange” gives an honest rendering of couples living in modern day New York, navigating the tricky waters of intergenerational relationships. It epitomizes these generational gaps through its portrayal of different couples and their interactions with each other.

For instance, Ben and George belong to an older generation — they have faced obstacles and persevered as a couple, while also holding onto some traditions, like religion. The two policemen represent the younger generation of homosexuals, one that has fought for and seemingly found tolerance within their own world; they are now spending the rest of their lives celebrating that fact through many a party. Elliot and Kate, meanwhile, represent the middle-aged couples teetering on the edge of divorce but staying together for the sake of their child. Finally, Joey, the hormone-fueled hate-monger, and his omnipresent friend-or-maybe-something-more Vlad (Eric Tabach), embody the latest Earth has to offer.

The magic in this film comes from the interactions between these generations, each shaped by a different set of cultural paradigms. And the bigger the gap, the more entertaining the interaction: namely, the bunk bed antics of Uncle Ben and “I-didn’t-do-it-leave-me-alone-mom” Joey. Each viewer will come into this film with his or her own cultural viewpoint and identify with a certain couple, and hopefully will walk away with a bit of wisdom from each generation.

Gladly, no one generation is glorified, and no one person deemed wrong in this film. Despite the obvious prominence of the “main” couple Ben and George, this film works as an ensemble piece; each performance complements the whole.

The chemistry between John Lithgow and Alfred Molina is heartwarming as audience members get to know the endearing couple that has remained in a perpetual honeymoon phase. Charlie Tahan must also be recognized for his very accurate portrayal of dopey Joey, timing his teenage grunts to perfection.

Overall, this film makes for a very enjoyable movie-going experience. You may not see anything new or life-changing, but one almost can’t help coming away feeling a bit older and wiser — just the usual price for having lived.