Love Is Strange conjures beautiful performances

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      Starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. Rated PG.

      Love is strange. A lot of people take it for a game. And yet the film with this title is far too decorous to use a twangy old Mickey & Sylvia song on the soundtrack. No, the tone’s set by Chopin, which certainly fits George, a mellow music teacher played by Alfred Molina. This transplanted Brit has been with John Lithgow’s slightly more fiery Ben, an occasionally successful painter, for four decades when they’re finally able to get married in New York state.

      What should be their crowning moment turns to merde when the Catholic school where George works fires him for his public avowal. Suddenly, they can’t afford their lovely Manhattan apartment, and selling it doesn’t give them enough to stay in the city. Neither wants to move to Poughkeepsie, although Ben’s ditzy niece has a big house there. So they decide to decamp apart, with George staying on the couch with the hard-partying gay cops downstairs and Ben moving in with his nephew (Northern Exposure’s Darren Burrows) out in Brooklyn.

      The nephew’s wife, played superbly by Marisa Tomei, is a novelist struggling to work at home and handling tensions with her distant husband and increasingly moody teenage son (Frankenweenie’s Charlie Tahan). There’s one indelible scene in which her passive-aggressive character attempts to write while a genuinely interested Ben wants to talk about one of her books.

      Such finely wrought moments arrive frequently in this beautifully acted feature from indie director Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue). But the script, which he wrote with Brazilian Mauricio Zacharias (Madame Satã), is more about real estate than love, and it works too hard to keep the film’s lovable protagonists apart, thereby sacrificing its best asset. Our guys are hardly working, and they must have metro passes, so why aren’t they at least spending their days together?

      Many plot threads are left dangling, and a few are downright baffling. The one time we see George teaching, he admonishes a young piano student for the equivalent of “not knowing the difference between a half step and a semitone”—which is weird, because they’re the exact same thing. Discords like that call into question the intelligence behind a project that, on the face of it, is the very image of careful introspection. Maybe a little Mickey & Sylvia would have helped, after all.