By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Movie stardom is strange, is it not?

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There are big-screen actors who are splendid in movie after movie, whose work nearly always elevates a project and its scenes to at least a slightly higher level of quality or authenticity, but who, for one reason or another, never quite ascend to the lofty level of marquee star.

The marvelous multi-generational tragi-comedy, Love Is Strange, features two of them.

 

(3 stars out of 4)

(3 stars out of 4)

 

John Lithgow excelled in The World According to Garp (for which he earned a best supporting actor Oscar nomination), Terms of Endearment, Footloose, 2010, Harry and the Hendersons, and Shrek -– to say nothing about his hilarious antics as the lead in television’s “3rd Rock from the Sun.”

And Alfred Molina was exemplary in Enchanted April, Chocolat, Frida, Spider-Man 2, Boogie Nights, and An Education.

Both have been consistently fine, and although calling their performances in the subtle and bittersweet Love Is Strange “career bests” may seem hyperbolic given that they’ve had such busy careers, it’s true:  neither has ever been better than he is here.

They play retired landscape and portrait painter Ben and choral choir instructor and piano teacher George (Lithgow the former and Molina the latter), a gay couple in Manhattan who take advantage of a new law and marry after nearly 40 years together in a modest ceremony for close friends and family, after which they post photos on Facebook.

But George teaches at Saint Grace Academy, a Catholic high school.  When news of their marriage reaches the Archdiocese of New York, George is summarily fired.

That means that newlyweds Ben and George –- compliments of New York City’s intimidating real estate market -– can no longer afford their co-op apartment.

So they turn to friends and family for help and have to separate, at least temporarily, until they can locate affordable digs.

George moves in with, and sleeps on the living room couch of, party-hearty policemen Roberto and Ted, played respectively by Manny Perez and Cheyenne Jackson, who live downstairs, while Ben relocates to Brooklyn to stay with his nephew Elliott, played by Darren Burrows, along with his novelist wife Kate, played by Marisa Tomei, and their moody teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan).

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These living arrangements may sound problematic, but it turns out they’re even worse in a movie that specializes in capturing those domestic occurrences in close proximity that slowly and quietly drive people crazy.

Director Ira Sachs (Married Life, Forty Shades of Blue, Keep the Lights On), working from the screenplay he co-wrote with Mauricio Zacharias, concentrates on the details of everyday life -– the routines, the rituals, the rebukes, the rewards.

It’s the small moments in his tapestry that amount to something big.

And if tears are shed, they will be earned, not just jerked, by director Sachs, who trusts his material and his players enough to let them breathe.

And we respond to the characters so completely that the plot strands the film leaves strewn about do no damage to the film’s overall effect on us.

Lithgow and Molina are impeccable -– understated, convincing, and empathetic –- both individually and as a screen team, delivering privileged moments galore. Not only are their roles lived in and pitch-perfect; so is their bond, their relationship, their interdependence.

And that’s even more remarkable when you consider that they spend much of the film apart, which is to the film’s detriment.

For as much as Sachs allows the film to be a showcase for his two leads, which he absolutely does, he also makes sure to create room for the members of his excellent supporting ensemble to register enough to gain our respect and affection and sympathy. After all, their lives are affected by the curveballs the narrative throws at them as well.

But in the time spent away from the dual protagonists, we miss them just as they miss each other.

Which is, perhaps, the point.

So we’ll relocate 3 stars out of 4.  Anchored by two consummate performances, the deeply intimate and restrained Love Is Strange is a lovely but not so strangely affecting portrait.

 

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