Indie films have done dramedies about infidelity and crumbling marriages to death, resurrected them, and then redone them to death again in several cycles. The Lovers orients itself around a twist in the formula: Instead of being about two spouses who cheat on one another with other people, it’s about two spouses who are faithful to each other on their affairs. The tropes around deception and elusiveness are turned from instruments of undermining relationships to the way the main characters find their way back to one another.
As The Lovers starts, the middle-aged Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) both have established committed relationships outside of their marriage. They take the idea of “going through the motions” with depressing literalness, pantomiming their daily routines of loveless life and boring work with mechanical indifference and as few words to each other as possible. Each is planning to leave the other for their emotionally immature lover—Michael’s with the unnervingly possessive dancer Lucy (Melora Walters), and Mary the infuriatingly passive-aggressive writer Robert (Aiden Gillen). They both plan to do so after their son’s impending visit, but their plans are hiccupped when an accidental kiss reignites their passion for one another. Suddenly, they’re taking extended breaks from work to have sex with each other instead of their lovers. (Side note: Ever notice there’s no male-equivalent term for “mistress”?)
Writer/director Azazel Jacobs has a lot of fun maneuvering the frame around the characters and their environments, studying the geometries of how they’re confined with each other. This brings the performances, the strongest part of the film by far, to the fore. Letts has made his entire body limp in physical surrender to ennui, only lighting himself up at precise moments. Winger makes Mary’s turmoil over her indecisiveness enthralling. It’s frustrating, then, that she gets shortchanged by the story, with much more time devoted to Michael’s side, hers developing in shorter scenes spaced further apart. His side mainly consists of him giving Lucy different permutations of the cold shoulder and then reassuring her, which wears out quickly. With a more balanced treatment, the movie would be more engaging.
Though that still wouldn’t fix a crippling lack of incident at the core of The Lovers, which pads out a handful of plot developments with long stretches of awkwardness. The awkwardness is the intended effect, of course, but it makes this 90-minute film feel twice as long. There are only so many ways two or more people can uncomfortably sit or stand next to each other. One can’t help but wonder how an old Hollywood master might treat this tale of flip-flopping fidelities.
Of course, that’s not Jacobs’ aim. The Lovers is interested in exaggerating how people lack the ability to communicate, not in screwball antics. But that demands a constantly engaged approach to staging and editing that the movie doesn’t muster. Instead, it stacks most of its deck with the performers, who are good, but can only deal it well for so long.
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Writer: Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Tracy Letts, Debra Winger, Melora Walters, Aiden Gillen, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula
Release Date: May 5, 2017