Bumps on the Road

In "Love is Strange," the path to equality isn't as smooth as we might hope

Did you ever see the film "Make Way for Tomorrow?" It was directed by Leo McCarey, usually left out of the discussion of great directors despite the fact that he won three Oscars and made "Duck Soup," "An Affair to Remember," and "Going My Way." "Make Way for Tomorrow" was released in 1937 and focused on an elderly couple who lose their apartment and can't find anyone to take both of them in together. Circumstances beyond their control split the couple physically but not emotionally. Orson Welles said "Tomorrow" would make a stone cry; documentarian Errol Morris calls it the most depressing movie ever made.

Director Ira Sachs revisits its central premise with the exquisitely performed (and less downbeat) "Love is Strange." The internal and external circumstances, however, have changed. In McCarey's film, it was Depression-era economics that shooed the couple out of their home. Although social commentary was not a very common occurrence in the films of the 1930s, here was one that looked at what it meant to be poor and old in the Great Depression. "Love is Strange" fixes its gaze on a modern social issue: the civil rights and the public perception of homosexuals. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been in a relationship for 40 years, and when gay marriage is legalized in New York, they take the plunge.

But even though George has been openly gay for some time, his marriage throws his employment into disarray. He's been a music teacher at a Catholic school, and the church looks down on his marriage, so they fire George. As you may know, real estate in Manhattan isn't cheap, so down one income, George and Ben must sell their apartment. As you may also know, real estate in Manhattan is not known for being spacious, so, unable to find suitable arrangements for both of them, George and Ben must live apart for the first time in four decades.

Sachs puts both men on seriocomic paths. They each find a place to crash, Ben with his nephew's family and George with a couple of cops who like loud parties. If there are moments when "Love is Strange" gets typical, it's here. The fish-out-of-water instinct takes over and it's not enough that the men are separated; they have to hate where they are independent of their other entanglements. Meh.

You get a sense sometimes that the movie gods clear the way for a performer who's been slugging away at it forever. Jeff Bridges, he of the five previous Oscar nominations (which should have been seven or eight) finally won for "Crazy Heart," which was not his best work. While John Lithgow is really good, it kind of feels like this moment belongs to Alfred Molina. So strong and versatile and risky for so many years, it's astounding that he's only been nominated for one major American award. And it was an Emmy nod, just this year, for "A Normal Heart." Hard to believe he's been shut out this long, but that may change—at least in terms of a nomination—thanks to his performance here.

As a filmmaker, Ira Sachs' most obvious point here is that, while it's great to see gay marriage being accepted in more places, there are still many minefields lining the road to equality. His more subtle point—the one that truly gives "Love is Strange" its gravity—is how humbling and dehumanizing it is to lose control of your own life despite the life you've lived. What makes it particularly bitter in this film is that both George and Ben finally feel like they can move forward together once they're married, only to be told in roundabout ways that they can't. What mellows the bitterness is how far people like George and Ben have come in the past few years, and how quickly prejudice like the one they face will hopefully be behind us.

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