Ben (Lithgow) at the easel.

Ben (Lithgow) at the easel.

Of the titles from Hollywood’s golden age that aren’t broadly recognized as

Of the titles from Hollywood’s golden age that aren’t broadly recognized as classics but really ought to be, Make Way for Tomorrow is on the short list—no arguments brooked. Leo McCarey, a director with a notable human touch, crafted this 1937 masterpiece from a simple story about two long-married folks forced to live apart when their money runs out and their grown children prove inept at compassionate problem-solving. This outline proves remarkably durable in Love Is Strange, a new film that finds an ingenious variation on the same story. Here, the couple has not been married long, but they’ve been together for 39 years; in fact, it’s the gift of their marriage that inadvertently causes the unwanted separation.

Meet Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), whose cohabitation stretches back long before same-sex marriage was a realistic goal. Their new legal bond means that music teacher George is fired by the Catholic school where he has long worked—everybody there likes him, but they have to obey their bylaws. Manhattan is sufficiently expensive that Ben and George have to give up their place, and financial complications dictate a few months of couch-surfing before they can settle. George moves in with tiresomely younger, hard-partying friends; Ben takes a bunk bed in the home of relatives Kate and Eliot (Marisa Tomei and Darren E. Burrows), who already have their hands full with an awkward teen son (Charlie Tahan). It’s one of those sad situations in which everybody generally means well, but things just aren’t working out. Tomei is excellent, for instance, at suggesting a writer who would really like some uninterrupted time in the middle of the day but doesn’t want to hurt Ben’s feelings when he settles in for a mid-afternoon confab with her. Director Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On), who has charted an intriguing course for himself through the indie world, is confident enough to leave out the expected big scenes and allow us to fill in the blanks.

The movie’s about a great deal more than gay marriage, if it is about that. It’s about how nobody has any time anymore; and how great cities have priced ordinary people out of living in them; and how long-nurtured dreams—Ben has been a serious but financially unsuccessful painter all his life—have to be gently refocused. And it’s certainly about, as Make Way for Tomorrow was, the way older people are casually shunted aside as though by some accepted ancient ritual. Lithgow avoids his hammier instincts and Molina underplays nicely as the more grounded half of the couple, but true to Sachs’ style, the movie isn’t designed as an actor’s showcase. We’re not supposed to notice the acting here—just the people. Opens Fri., Sept. 12 at Harvard Exit, Lincoln Square, and Sundance. Rated R. 93 minutes.

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