'The Lovers': Film Review

The Lovers - Still 1 - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
An unpredictably funny showcase for two very deserving actors.

Debra Winger and playwright Tracy Letts are a cheating husband and wife who might just stay together in Azazel Jacobs' uncomfortable relationship comedy.

Affection and attraction play by their own confounding rules in The Lovers, Azazel Jacobs' mordant comedy about a married couple who can't remain faithful even to their infidelities. Smart, unpredictable performances by Debra Winger and Tracy Letts and an uncommonly crucial score by Mandy Hoffman ensure that the picture's odd nature won't be misconstrued as indecisiveness; though commercial appeal is limited, older moviegoers should respond particularly well at art houses.

Letts and Winger are Michael and Mary, who appear to have been married for many, many more years than either would have liked. Each has a longtime lover (Melora Walters' Lucy and Aidan Gillen's Robert, respectively), to whom s/he has made, broken and remade promises to give the marriage up. (Why neither has done so is an unasked question.) Now, with their college-age son planning to come home for a visit, each arrives separately at the same determination: This is it, they say. After the visit, I'll end the marriage. We can start our lives together at last.

But a funny thing happens on the way to divorce court. Mike and Mary fall for each other again.

In early scenes, Jacobs captures the stultifying state of this marriage. Husband and wife work depressing-looking cubicle jobs and frequently find themselves either working late or "working late." When they do cross paths at home, their indifference to what the other person is saying suggests neither gives a damn if the other is having an affair — they simply don't want to be caught not caring. Flimsy excuses elicit flimsy follow-up questions, with long pauses filling the air between them. Even the act of Mary offering a glass of wine to Michael feels like an act of hospitality in a foreign land, where a traveler doesn't know whether custom requires him to accept or reject the gift.

But when an instant of half-sleeping disorientation throws them into accidental physical contact one morning, this bone-dry kindling is sparked into flame. They're hot for each other again — sneaking away from work to screw on the sofa, making the same excuses to Lucy and Robert they've made to each other for years. Though each is still keeping his affair a secret, they're communicating on other fronts, looking like people who actually enjoy each other's company. Finally, now that there's actually a marriage worth wrecking, the Other Man and Other Woman are summoned from afar to cause trouble.

The drama boils over during the son's visit. Joel (Tyler Ross), long disgusted by his parents' loveless union, has prepared his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula) for the worst; when he finds Mom and Dad not just greeting them like a normal family but sneaking kisses when he's not looking, Joel is robbed even of whatever comfort he derives from understanding his family's dysfunction. We root for Mary and Michael as they try to present the best versions of themselves to Erin, and Jacobs' screenplay seems pointed toward a confrontation that will offer both catharsis and second chances all around.

As with most things here, it doesn't quite work as expected. Even the most graceful moment in this third act — the one moment in the film that would most likely be called touching — works simultaneously in two opposing directions, cementing the bittersweet nature of a film that initially seemed purely bitter before turning toward loopy farce.

Production company-distributor: A24
Cast: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aidan Gillen, Melora Walters, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula
Director-screenwriter: Azazel Jacobs
Producers: Azazel Jacobs, Ben LeClair, Chris Stinson
Director of photography: Tobias Datum
Production designer: Sue Tebbutt
Costume designer: Diaz
Editor: Darrin Navarro
Composer: Mandy Hoffman
Casting director: Nicole Arbusto
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)

Rated R, 97 minutes