Film Review: The Lovers

An original and subtle comedy of remarriage, with top-notch performances by Debra Winger and Tracy Letts.
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Azazel Jacobs’The Lovers is an oddly compelling, nuanced farce (of all contradictions) that is paradoxically familiar yet totally original. It teeters between an old-fashioned comedy of remarriage with its share of madcap elements and a realistic 21st-century family drama that is not funny at all, but actually rather sad.

Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), a long-term married, middle-aged couple, have settled into a non-combative, uneasy existence—each secretly involved with a much younger lover and, indeed, committed to his/her new passion, Lucy (Melora Walters) and Robert (Aidan Gillen), respectively.

Suddenly one morning, Michael and Mary wake up face to face in bed staring into each other’s eyes. To their utter amazement they are mutually aroused and a renewed passion is sparked. Within short order they are cheating on their lovers as they embark on a torrid romance with each other. They pine, they yearn, they engage in husky-voiced phone conversations that cryptically allude to their next hot roll in the hay.

Events come to a head when their college-age son Joel (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula) arrive on the scene. Joel feels nothing but contempt for his parents and their hypocritical lives. His presence and the inevitable family confrontation that erupts subtly—and subtle is the operative word—recast the story and its protagonists in a new light. Mary and Michael have wounded their son, perhaps irrevocably, but they are also so much more complex than his youthful, innocent and limited point of view can begin to grasp. Thanks to Joel’s skewed vision, the viewer ironically sees them through a new, clearer lens.

On the surface, Michael and Mary should be satisfied with what they have, including fine, high-paying jobs. Still, Michael once wanted to be a musician. The keyboard is now shuttered and covered with a pile of miscellany in his living room. Mary’s past longings are never articulated, but maybe she has disappointed ambitions as well. It’s no coincidence that each has fallen in love with an aspiring artist: Lucy is an interpretative dancer and Robert a novelist. But these are not romanticized figures at all. They are in fact pretentious, talent-free nitwits. That makes for comedy—there’s an element of sendup—but there’s pathos too as Lucy and Robert embody Mary and Michael’s youthful impulses that are now further degraded by the second-rate Lucy and Robert, who are not exactly winning in any other way either: Lucy is given to tumultuous outbursts and Robert is devoid of personality.

This film plays with expectations and at moments defies credibility, starting with the symmetry of Michael and Mary’s affairs. But the film cannot be taken or interpreted literally, as it almost feels stylized and choreographed. The story is telescoped and minimalist (no exposition or personal biographies), and the dialogue is sparse.

Much of the acting takes place between the lines and Letts and Winger pull it off brilliantly, whether they’re silently sharing a bottle of wine with each other or trying hard to appreciate their respective lovers’ creative outpourings. The chemistry between the two leads is spot-on.

Letts is every bit an aging preppie everyman whose refined and rational vision of the world is beginning to crack, though he’s constantly trying to keep it altogether. When his deranged girlfriend rages yet again at his ongoing promise to leave his wife, his response is revealing. “It’ll be over soon,” he tries to pacify Lucy. “So why not make it the least dramatic possible?” His aversion to drama defines him, yet here he is ostensibly determined to escape the dullness of his marriage and hook up with an unstable woman who may in fact suffer from some serious psychiatric disorder. An unlikely leading man, Letts is one versatile actor (Christine, Indignation), along with being a prolific playwright and screenwriter, whose plays include the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County.

Winger is equally impressive, giving one of her best performances as an unexceptional, slightly damaged mature woman who’s not yet ready to call it quits on life. It’s her first leading role in more than two decades, though during her heyday she was constantly in demand, appearing in such blockbusters as An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment, and rolling up three Oscar nominations. When she decided to take a hiatus from movies in 1995—she appeared on Broadway in David Mamet’s The Anarchist in 2012—many industry insiders surmised it was a decision based on limited options for good roles. In fact, the documentary Searching for Debra Winger explored precisely that issue facing Hollywood actresses who’ve seen the better side of forty. Starring roles for all actors of a certain age are in short supply but getting better (See previous writing on that topic here and here) and The Lovers takes a major step in presenting flawed, sexually alive, complicated people past midlife who are not exactly appealing but you root for them anyway.

The Loversis all the more remarkable coming from a young filmmaker (Momma’s Man, Terri) who is moving on from his dysfunctional youth-centered dramas to consider such adult subjects as the cost of monogamy and infidelity—and do it with compassion, sophistication and deadpan humor.

The ending is classic in summing up and taking to the next level everything that’s transpired up until that point. Suffice it to say it’s comic and disturbing, inevitable and contrived, implausible and totally plausible.

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