Film Review: The Lovers

by Carrie Kahn on May 12, 2017

Powerhouse actors make tonally odd picture worth watching

Married couple Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) are both having affairs, unbeknownst to the other. 

The Lovers is an odd movie. That’s not to say that it’s not worth seeing; it’s just that tonally, strange is the best word to describe it. A virtual pas de deux between heavy hitters Tracy Letts and Debra Winger, the picture focuses on their characters Michael and Mary, a long-married husband and wife, each of whom is having an affair and plotting to leave the other. In the midst of this mendacity, however, a spark rekindles between the couple, jeopardizing their extracurricular relationships.

The premise is interesting and certainly ripe for dramatic and comedic possibilities, but as executed by writer/director Azazel Jacobs (known most recently for television work), the picture, while it has its moments — mostly thanks to Letts and Winger — ends up lacking a level of depth it needs in order to wholly succeed.

Letts is a formidable actor, and he exudes a refreshing lightness of touch here. He’s nicely paired with the equally strong Winger, who we see on screen far too seldom these days. As Michael and Mary, the two convey the day-to-day ennui of a marriage gone stale in quiet pauses, carefully polite, limited, conversations, and stiff body language. As the picture opens, their coolness with each other is contrasted with their affection for their younger paramours. Mary is involved with Robert (Aidan Gillen), an insecure writer, and Michael is seeing Lucy (Melora Walters), a possessive and needy dancer. One of the main problems of Jacobs’s screenplay is that we have to take on faith that Michael and Mary are more into their flings than they are into each other. We aren’t given much to go on in terms of character development for either Robert or Lucy, aside from the lovers’ constant haranguing of the spouses to leave each other, so often it’s hard to find the draw – or the passion – believable.

Michael (Tracy Letts) has found a paramour in ballet teacher Lucy (Melora Walters)…

At least with Michael and Mary, we get some minor insight into their relationship history, thanks to a visit home by their college age son Joel (Tyler Ross), who warns his new girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula) that his parents hate each other. When Joel and Erin arrive home, however, Joel is stunned to see his parents behaving affectionately toward each other. As a neutral party, Erin becomes the audience’s surrogate, and its her questioning of Joel’s parents that allows us to see that Michael and Mary weren’t always the bored, restless couple we see when the picture opens, and that the almost unconscious reawakening of long dormant passion between the two is both believable and understandable.

The narrative tension arises from the fact that Michael and Mary have both told their lovers that they will end their marriage after Joel’s visit home. But neither Michael nor Mary anticipated their reconnection in the interim. How the conflict plays out for the entire foursome – as well as for Joel and Erin – makes for captivating viewing, even as, right up until the picture’s end, the audience is never entirely certain of either Michael or Mary’s true loyalties or motivations, which can be both infuriating and intriguing.

… while his wife Mary (Debra Winger) is involved with writer Robert (Aidan Gillen).

Both Letts and Winger, though ultimately portraying cyphers throughout, do have some standout moments that make the picture worth watching, if only to see two masters at work. Both get scenes more than a little reminiscent of Diane Lane’s great silent showcase on the train home after being with her lover in Unfaithful; here, we see Mary react to texts she receives from Michael after an amorous encounter. We never learn what exactly the texts say, but Winger tells us everything we need to know in a few, unspoken, beautifully acted moments. Similarly, Michael returns to his staid and soulless office cubicle after an unexpected liaison with his wife, and the camera closes in on him laughing out loud in pure delight for almost a full minute. It’s another wordless scene that speaks volumes – and, in some ways, is far better than any dialogue Jacobs could have written expressing what Michael is thinking and feeling.

Moments like these are lovely and true, and help balance some of the picture’s weaker elements, including an annoyingly winsome soundtrack that feels distractingly out of place at times. Kudos to the location scout, though, for shooting in the Santa Clarita area of Los Angeles; a quiet, well ordered, and squeaky clean suburb, the location is a perfect stand in for the carefully orchestrated surfaces Michael and Mary present to each other and those in their orbit.

As a study of the ebb and flow of a long and imperfect marriage, the picture definitely leaves the viewer with much to ponder, even as the often superficial character presentation can cause some frustration. But then again, what relationship doesn’t?

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The Lovers opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema and the AMC Kabuki Theater in San Francisco, and will open next Friday, May 19th, at the Landmark Albany Twin and Landmark Piedmont Theatre in the East Bay. Note that writer/director Azazel Jacobs will appear tonight, Friday May 12, at the Embarcadero for a Q&A following the 7:00pm screening. 

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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