Married couple cheat on the cheaters they’re cheating with in admirably drab domestic dramedy
The Lovers (2017)
Directed by Azazel Jacobs
Cast: Tracy Letts, Debra Winger, Aidan Gillen, Melora Walters
Debra Winger (working on the comeback she’s been developing since 2008’s Rachel Getting Married) and Tracy Letts (the Pulitzer Prize-winning actor/writer behind August: Osage County) join forces as an unhappily married couple in the mildly amusing, but mostly painful domestic drama The Lovers. While the film strives for domestic realism in all its messy, flawed, overweight glory, it lacks that voyeuristic thrill you get from spying on your suburban neighbors in real life. (Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
For Michael (Letts) and Mary (Winger), the passion has long since evaporated from their longtime relationship. With their son off at college, middle age staring at them from the rearview mirror and their white collar careers stalled in office buildings somewhere in suburbia, Michael and Mary have turned elsewhere for excitement. He’s having a serious affair with a tightly wound dance instructor (Melora Walters from “Big Love”). Coincidentally, conveniently and perhaps mercifully, she’s having a long-term affair with a touchy writer (Aidan Gillen from “Game of Thrones”). Unbeknownst to one another, they’re both secretly texting their lovers, coming home late at night, making up lies and looking for an “out.” They’re also both—coincidentally, once again—simply waiting for their son to return home in a couple of weeks to spring the news on one another that they want a divorce. They’re both unhappy, they’re both cheating, they’re both trying to break up. So what’s the problem?
This all-too-symmetrical setup is the centerpiece of filmmaker Azazel Jacobs’ latest effort. After writing and directing such ultra-independent dramedies as Momma’s Man and Terri, Jacobs climbs up a rung of the Hollywood outsider ladder with a slightly bigger budget, a recognizable cast and a more commercial premise. But does he wring enough from the opportunity? The “joke” of The Lovers comes in when, on the verge of admitting their matrimonial defeat, Michael and Mary find that certain spark that brought them together in the first place suddenly and improbably re-ignited. Just as they’re about to call it quits, the long-distant spouses fall back in bed (and possibly in love) with one another and start “cheating” on the people they’re cheating with. Call it “double infidelity.”
There is some intermittent amusement to be found in the film’s slight twist of a premise. Unfortunately, Jacobs seems to put far more weight on his actors than on his script, which barely tells us anything concrete about Michael or Mary and their near-identical romantic crossroads. It’s up to Winger and Letts to impart crucial information with knowing glances, regretful stares, painful silences and twitchy reactions. They’re both great actors and more than up to the task. But it’s, ultimately, a lazy way of making a film. It’s great watching Winger and Letts interact. But as the thin premise wears on, you can’t help but wish Jacobs had given them a bit more to work with. The dialogue is all so discursive. The characters just talk around the subject at hand—which is not all that unrealistic, of course. Rarely do people address the elephant in the living room. But here the actors are reduced to reciting page after page of neutral dialogue, hoping that an occasional double entendre or cutting turn of phrase will accidentally form.
Jacobs keeps his camera pointed directly in the faces of his actors—perfectly befitting the claustrophobic confines of this domestic situation. But mostly it feels like he’s afraid to look away from his leads, wary of missing some deeply meaningful facial expression that might come along and cover the dead zones in his script. The humor is clearly not in the dialogue either, but in the situation; and if the same story were developed as some sort of manic French farce, it might fly higher.
Glum, middle-aged and drably realistic, The Lovers never feels like it’s had its morning cup of coffee. Michael and Mary’s reverse-infidelity isn’t quite naughty or thrilling or transgressive or comical enough. If their rekindled attraction had been accompanied by some sort of active discussion or acknowledgment, the emotional stakes might have been elevated. Their secret lovers are both rather unappealing, so kickstarting their joyless marriage seems like no better or worse choice than pizza vs. burgers for dinner.
Don’t get me wrong: The Lovers is smart and honest and probably pretty accurate. The leads are strong, and the filmmaker behind it all has got plenty of potential. It’s just not quite as satisfying as you might hope—kinda like middle-aged infidelity itself. I’m guessing.