“Love Is Strange” is one of those lovely little movies that starts out being about a handful of people and ends up being about all of us. That’s a tricky act to pull off and the talented writer-director Ira Sachs (“Forty Shades of Blue,” “Keep the Lights On”) stumbles occasionally over moments of self-conscious lyricism. But then the film recovers its balance, looks at its characters with fondness and with faith, and quietly soars.
It’s very much a New York story. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play Ben and George, an aging West Village couple who in the film’s opening scenes finally tie the knot after decades of living together. The wedding in a park and small reception for family and friends in the couple’s apartment are joyous enough to make you wonder if the film’s title is kidding. But then George loses his job as a choirmaster at a Catholic school — the Father (John Cullum) was able to look the other way as long as the union wasn’t legal — and Ben’s retirement income isn’t enough to float the rent. The two are forced to live separately.
The movie is, in part, about family units and what happens when they’re pulled apart and rearranged. Ben ends up in a bunk bed at the Brooklyn apartment of his filmmaker nephew Elliott (Darren E. Burrows), Elliott’s writer wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan, a striking, angular presence). The older man means well but he’s one of those warm, chatty personalities who fills a room, and Sachs subtly gets us to sympathize with Kate as she tries to work on her fiction, keep a household together, watch over her rebellious son, and find a place in her heart and home for Ben.
George, meanwhile, is crashing on the couch of younger friends and feeling like an old man at a party that never ends. “Love Is Strange” acquires an extra-strength glow whenever the couple speak over the phone or when George walks blocks in the rain to be with Ben and we see the affection — the deep comfort in each other’s company — that circumstance, bigotry, and New York rental rates have imperiled.
“Love Is Strange” reminded me of two much earlier films, worth mentioning only because Sachs has certainly seen them and you should too. The first is 1937’s “Make Way for Tomorrow,” the finest movie about the elderly that studio-era Hollywood ever made. (It’s also just about the only one.) The other is “Tokyo Story,” Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 remake of “Make Way for Tomorrow” and one of the classics of world cinema. Both films look at older couples split asunder and find tragedy but little blame; they are each, in their fashion, among the more humane cinematic experiences you’ll ever have.
“Love Is Strange” isn’t as unyielding as those earlier movies; it cushions the blow. But the blow is still struck, and the part of the movie that stays with you — that you may keep coming back to, as I did, for days afterward — is the effect of Ben and George’s situation on the people around them. “Love Is Strange” becomes Kate’s movie at one point, and toward the end it becomes Joey’s, and none of those shifts in focus betray the film’s essential meaning, which is that we are all in this together, most of all when we least consider it.
Sachs has an Ozu-like fondness for long takes that seem to drift away from the topic at hand, until you realize he’s just resetting the parameters — that the topic is, always, much larger than we think. A sequence of Ben on a roof painting the Manhattan skyline sinks into the details of light and brushstroke and the moment observed; it lingers, daringly. So does a scene toward the end of the film, the camera hovering near a weeping boy in a stairwell, holding on the scene as we feel sympathy, embarrassment, epiphany — the moment when one generation cedes ground to the next.
The soundtrack throughout is filled with Chopin, a change from the meddlesome scores of most movies and an acknowledgment of the cultured, slightly out-of-time personalities of the couple at the story’s center. Ben and George are as worldly and as naïve as the city that is their universe; we feel privileged to have met them, their family and their friends, and that wonderment keeps expanding after the lights come up. The Chopin is fine, but “Love Is Strange” listens harder to the music that people make.