Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers uncorks in the midst of a passionate spat, tears pouring from the puffy eyes of a heartsick woman (Melora Walters) waiting for her departing beau, Michael (Tracy Letts), to recite those three little. You know the ones. Nevertheless, he remains silent, and retreats to a separate life with his “other woman,” who, in this case, also happens to be his wife, Mary (Debra Winger).
The setup thrusts us into a world brimming with emotion, as it’s revealed Mary, too, is having an affair with a charming (and rightfully testy) writer, one who tirelessly implores her to dump her dolt of a husband, but she’s hesitant. Her adult son is bringing his new girlfriend home for the weekend, and he deserves a semblance of domestic peace before the looming divorce has a chance to get ugly, she says. Thus, the front endures, and the fractured halves of this bare bones marriage make the trek back to their suburban home to simmer in the discomfort of their secrets.
For all the fireworks that explode in The Lovers’ opening moments, the couple at the center of it all feels oddly removed, perhaps numb to each other’s wants and desires after years of letting the wedge drive deeper between them. Still, day after day, they exchange pleasantries in the kitchen as they make breakfast and head to work, gliding through the mundanity of a middle-age slump.
In a playful twist of fate, an unexpected, unexplainable magnetism coaxes Michael and Mary back together. Awkward pecks on the cheek blossom into sustained sitting (side by side!) on the couch as they share a bottle of wine, which leads to the best (and presumably only) sex they’ve had with each other in ages. And so their twisted web weaves, as the wandering adulterers creep from the beds of others and into a mutual embrace once again, their passion slowly rekindling as if by magic.
Perhaps it’s for the best, but neither party questions the mysterious resurgence of affection, and the premise is earnestly amusing if not entirely dramatically satisfying when, approximately halfway through, the film essentially circles back to where it started. Instead of cheating on each other, Michael and Mary are now cheating on the people they were initially cheating with… with each other (gasp). Sadly, The Lovers offers little more than a self-satisfied wink at its own amusingly constructed quadrangle in its closing moments, and it doesn’t feel like the characters have evolved enough from who they were at the outset to warrant our congratulations. Alas, it’s impossible to predict a satisfying conclusion to any romantic endeavor, let alone expect Jacobs to pop a conventional cap atop the saga of The Lovers’ willfully rogue duo. But the road leads Michael and Mary to a space that’s, in all its unappealing glory, right for them—even if it’s sometimes a bit of a chore for us to tag along.
Worth every leap and stride, however, are the performances of Letts and Winger, who embody the aimlessness of their characters with pointed restraint as Michael and Mary. Letts, who’s proven his intimidating stature in films like Indignation and Christine, peels back the weightiness of his stoic façade and gives the most vulnerable performance of his career, but Winger, here with her first leading part in 16 years, quietly steals the show, cementing herself as an unsung legend of the screen. On paper, the role required her to do little more than mime the motions of a woman ambling through a period of dire uncertainty. But, Winger’s not here to meet expectations. She’s not “playing a part” as much she’s harmonizing with the material in a way that commands our empathy and understanding.
Jacobs’ directorial hand, of course, is the other star player in The Lovers, as he boldly toys with unexpected splashes of humor and irony against the muted shades of unconventional coupling. He dresses the picture with Mandy Hoffman’s jovial, string-based score that expertly recalls puffy big screen romances of yesteryear, nudging at how the complexities of love have outgrown the mold, as Michael and Mary soon discover.
If you boil The Lovers down to its core, it’s a 94-minute affirmation of age-old mantras about the heart wanting what it wants. At times, its convictions are endearing and sweet and delightfully quirky—like a budding fling—but, at others, they’re as obtuse and frustrating and layered as a real-life search for a soul mate can be. Either way, the whole thing is rarely hard to embrace—warts and all—even if we’re not yet ready to say “I love you” when the credits roll. B