The Lovers ****/*****
Directed by: Azazel Jacobs.
Written by: Azazel Jacobs.
Starring: Debra Winger (Mary), Tracy Letts (Michael), Aidan Gillen (Robert), Melora Walters (Lucy), Tyler Ross (Joel), Jessica Sula (Erin).
The Lovers starts out with notes of familiarity. We first see Michael (Tracy Letts) with Lucy (Melora Walters) – a rather clingy woman, quite a few years younger than he is, telling him he needs to tell his wife about them, and him agreeing, but also coming up with reasons not to do so right now. We first see Mary (Debra Winger) have a very similar conversation with her younger lover, Robert (Aidan Gillen) – who is clingy in another way. And then, finally, we see Michael and Mary together – they are the married couple at the center of the film, and we quickly realize why both of them have taken lovers in the first place. They don’t much like each other – or really anything else about their lives. Their lives are dull – dull house, dull jobs, dull marriage. While we, in the audience, may find their lovers annoying in their whining – perhaps the fact that they add some drama in their lives is what Michael and Mary want in the first place, because they aren’t getting it anywhere else. They both agree with their lovers that they will tell their spouse that they are leaving them – but only after their college age son, Joel (Tyler Ross) and his new girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula) come for the weekend. Michael wants to do it after the weekend, to avoid drama, and Mary wants to do it during the weekend – so she can tell Joel to his face what is happening.
Perhaps it is that knowledge – that their marriage now has an expiration date – that sets Michael and Mary off. They go to bed one night, each clinging to their side of the bed, and wake up facing each other. It’s awkward for a second, and then, they’re fucking like teenagers again. And they don’t stop – there’s a long montage of them having sex in various places, in various ways. Soon, they’re lying to their new partners to find more time to spend together. They are, essentially, having an affair with each other – even though they are married.
This is the basic setup of The Lovers, which is an odd comedy in many ways – not least of which because the movie doesn’t judge these characters, and also doesn’t end up in the place we expect it to. Neither character knows the other one is cheating on them, yet through the course of the movie they each have a scene where they find out – and not from their partner. How each responds to that knowledge is strange – they seem genuinely hurt by this knowledge, even though they’ve been doing the same thing – and yet, they don’t let on either. The performances by Letts and Winger are crucial to the movie to work, because while there is a lot of dialogue – many of the most telling moments are silent. It’s Winger best work in years, and adds yet another great performance to Letts’ resume – who after years as a playwright and stage actor, is finally getting great movie roles.
The movie doesn’t really judge its two leads – their son certainly does, but people in college, particularly when they are in love (perhaps for the first time) are idiots, and don’t understand the ups and downs of a long marriage. They’ll learn. The movie also doesn’t fool itself, or try to fool its audience, into thinking that whatever the hell is now happening between Michael and Mary can fix their long standing problems – whatever lead them to this point, and their marriage to crumble in this way either. What the movie gets precisely right is that shorthand that exists in a marriage. There is a musical moment late in the film, which is perfectly utilized, and means more to Michael and Mary than it could to anyone else – it’s like everything else melts away.