It's not the fault of Love Is Strange that at no point while I was watching it, was I able to banish 1937's Make Way for Tomorrow from my mind. And it's even less the film's fault that it can't compete with Make Way for Tomorrow: if we were to throw out every film that wasn't as good as Make Way for Tomorrow, we'd be left with only several dozen movies from the entire span of cinema history.

It's not even the fault of Love Is Strange that it banks everything, ultimately, on the quality of its performances, using the subtle camerawork and gentle story rhythms and purposefully claustrophobic set decoration to serve as the backdrop for the characters and the actors bringing those characters to life. Because it has a pretty strong cast, doing pretty strong work, and on a scene-by-scene basis, the character work can reach some truly lofty heights that only the most steadfastly hate-filled viewer would be able to find fault with it.

And yet I find myself a little impatient with Love Is Strange, which takes a rather keenly-etched central relationship of a kind that is virtually invisible in pop culture, and proceeds to do most of the least interesting things it possibly can with that relationship, in the rare moments when it doesn't shamefacedly admit that it's actually a lot more interested in this story over here to the side. The situation is direct enough: after 39 years of partnership, retiree Ben (John Lithgow) and Catholic school choir director George (Alfred Molina) have decided to get married, for reasons that are clear enough that director-writer Ira Sachs (co-writing with Mauricio Zacharias) happily doesn't have to club us over the head with bromides about historical struggles and progressive triumphs. It's enough that we get a sense of Ben & George realising that it's a momentous event without having to stop everything to say, "Look fellas, it's Momentous Event time".

Momentous not just on a political level, but a personal one as well: the archdiocese in charge of George's school has been willing to not pay any attention to having a gay choir director as long as it was, like, "unofficial", but now that they're married, there's too much pressure to cut George loose. And in the blink of an eye, two senior citizens who have been living at a pace in their lovely Brooklyn condo that Ben's social security and George's handful of students aren't remotely enough to compensate for are homeless and broke. The best solution - outside of moving to the suburbs to live with George's niece Mindy (Christina Kirk), a solution the film and filmakers find so repugnant that they can only treat it as a joke - is for the couple to split up, with Ben moving in with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), Elliot's writer wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their teen son Joey (Charlie Tahan), while George moves in with their younger gay cop friends Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez). And the movie tries, really hard, to pretend that George's life is really as important as Ben's following the split. There are scenes set in the cops' apartment and everything. But the fare greater depth and complexity of the dramatic scenario over at Elliot & Kate's place, not to mention the absolutely exquisite, film-dominating performance Tomei gives, suck all the air right out of things, and at a certain point, Sachs concedes the point entirely, shifting the anchor of the movie from "how can Ben and George cope with being separated?" to "what impact does Ben's presence have on the tendentious relationship between Joey and his parents?"

It's not an awful thing to do, though it means that Love Is Strange ceases to be the movie it told is it was going to be, and I can't stop thinking that it becomes less interesting in the process. It's also unfortunate how little oxygen this ends up leaving for Molina's really lovely turn as George, a quiet man with downcast eyes and suits that he wears like a shield against the world (as opposed to Ben, whose outfits feel more like a siege weapon he uses to assert himself in places that aren't entirely welcoming - at any rate, Arjun Bhasin's costuming throughout the movie is really terrific and nuanced), replacing him with Tahan's boringly petulant Joey. Though in Tahan's defense, it would have taken someone much strong than all but the best teen actors to survive the increasingly insane directions that Sachs & Zacharias take Joey, a character who they keep trying to make us think is gay, and then acting like they've played a magic trick when they go back to presenting him as straight, for no remotely clear reason.

And I'm disappointed by how the film's consistent structural technique of moving us through time without indicating how long has passed, or even necessarily what went on in the scenes we missed ends up under-emphasising the relationship between Ben & George as well. It's a clever thing, when it's done right: the transition from "what are we to do with the old men?" to "the old men are lonely and stuck in their new homes" is absolutely thrilling in how fluidly and cleanly it happens. But the same exact gesture is played at the end, and it's probably the biggest shift the film ever makes in deciding that it's really about Joey more than his uncles. This is doubly disappointing since Molina and Lithgow, friends for many years in real life, are so excellent in their handful of scenes together. Particularly in one late scene in a bar, where they find really incredible, rich ways of playing old, tired libidos and nostalgia and the comfortable flirting of two people who have no more secrets with one another. That Sachs adopts a structure which deliberately hides away this relationship is acutely frustrating - and in that regard, it's maybe even a clever device to make us feel the same way that the couple feels themselves. But it's not any more pleasurable for supposing that it's clever.

Still and all, no matter how upset I am with the film Love Is Strange isn't, the film it is still works really damn well, most of the time. Tomei and Lithgow's scenes together are masterclasses in crafting characters for the screen through small gestures and subtly unexpected line readings; she inadvertently makes the film about herself by being the most fleshed-out character with the most tense internal conflicts and unspoken resentments, and this does, perhaps, speak ill of the movie that it could be so firmly wrenched away from any of the characters we might plausibly describe as its protagonists. And her work consistently raises Lithgow's; that actor, prone to mugging and snatching away scenes and being generally too big, hasn't been this focused and precise in years. A delicate domestic drama about sad old men getting in the way of increasingly impatient middle-aged women isn't exactly the film that Love Is Strange declares itself to be, but it's a rewarding and interesting thing to watch anyway, and however far the film ended up from anything I wanted it to be, I'm certainly not sorry about what it actually is.