There’s a rhythm to the romantic dramedy The Lovers that’s as unique as its quirky characters. If you can hook into that rhythm, the film will take you to some unexpected emotional places. The premise is a slight twist on the familiar story of married couples who rekindle their love after years of neglecting each other. The charm and sparkle of The Lovers is in the way writer/director Azazel Jacobs infuses a sense of magical realism into the tale of his married couple Mary and Michael. When it comes to the actors portraying them, Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, it’s just plain magic.
Each spouse is cheating on the other. Mary is carrying on with Robert, an intense writer. Michael is involved with Lucy, a dancer who teaches ballet to young children. Both Robert and Lucy are growing tired of their respective lovers’ promises to finally tell their significant other about the affair, and end the loveless marriage. Unexpectedly, Mary and Michael’s son Joel calls to tell his parents he’ll be bringing his girlfriend Erin up in a few weeks to meet them for the first time. Both husband and wife independently latch on to the idea that the end of this family weekend will be the perfect time to come clean.
Then something funny happens.
Without warning, Mary and Michael begin a torrid love affair with each other. In the drollest scene of the film, the initial rekindling of their romance seems to overtake them almost as if they are under a magic spell. They’re getting ready for work, Mary is dressed and finishing up in the bedroom as Michael comes out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel. They sit on opposite sides of the bed when Michael slowly, in several moves, inches closer to Mary. It’s almost like he’s in a trance. Mary at first looks bewildered, maybe even a little apprehensive about Michael getting closer. Then the same enchantment overtakes her. Now the couple who have been together for decades start acting like newlyweds. They can’t keep their hands off each other.
It’s hard to overstate how much Winger and Letts bring to the movie through their portrayals of Mary and Michael. Even the one criticism I have against the picture dissolves completely because of their beautiful performances. At the beginning of The Lovers, it’s clear that Mary and Michael aren’t connected in any way. They aren’t in love, but that seems to be about it. The opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference, as the saying goes. Later we’re asked to believe that they actually do hate each other, when Joel tells his girlfriend as much on their way into town.
The movie never gives us any information to that end; it never describes some event in their past that would cause any hatred to fester between them. Winger and Letts made me forget about that small quibble, though. They make Mary and Michael so real through the smallest of mannerisms and expressions. They make the simple action of sitting on opposite ends of the couch and drinking a glass of wine together while blankly staring at the TV speak volumes about two people who are disconnected from each other in every way. Their casual disregard for one another feels so true because it’s something we’ve seen in real life.
Jacobs’ script does hint that what happened to Mary and Michael might have been just life itself, instead of one long-ago betrayal. In a getting-to-know-you conversation between Michael and Erin, the latter mentions that Joel told her Michael used to be a musician. He chuckles at this, and describes it as something almost from another life. He eventually gave up on it, he explains, and got a regular day job. He suggests he put one over on Mary; he’s so changed from the person he was when they got married, he might as well be a different person now.
By contrast, the actors use those same skills to make the relationship blossom before our eyes when the characters rediscover the spark in their marriage. The love scenes are intense and passionate. The small moments that have nothing to do with sex are even more affecting. Because Mary and Michael must now hide their affair from the actual people they are cheating with, they start texting like teenagers. One sweet exchange simply cuts back and forth between the two as they laugh out loud while reading the other’s messages. The camera never shows us what they are typing, so even we are left out of this bit of romantic rediscovery and connection. It’s a private moment meant only for Mary and Michael, like an old inside joke between a couple who have been together for years.
The downbeat humor works as an excellent counterpoint to the scenes of heartbreaking drama that come late in The Lovers. Toward the end of their family weekend, Lucy can’t tolerate Michael’s stalling any longer, so she decides to take action, albeit nonverbally. This instigates a confrontation between everyone in the family, and Joel ends up being the most hurt, in spite of having his suspicions confirmed. Jacobs then defies convention when he gives us an unexpected, bittersweet finale that he hilariously reverses in the last seconds of the film.
Long term relationships have been the focus of hundreds of movies. From the silent era’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans to the harrowing 2012 film Amour, it’s a subject that is rich for exploration. Azazel Jacobs has managed to bring a fresh perspective to the topic through insightful, funny writing and deliberative, patient storytelling. Winger and Letts bring The Lovers to life with idiosyncratic characterizations that make spending time with them a rewarding experience.
Why it got 4 stars:
- The Lovers is an absolutely beautiful romantic comedy. It's devoid of the clichéd trappings you usually find in the genre. The movie is filled with delightful surprises.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- This really is Winger and Letts' movie, but the supporting roles are strong, too. Game of Thrones and The Wire star Aidan Gillen and Melora Walters play the long suffering partners in Mary and Michael's affairs. Letts has a moment with Walters when he tries a ballet move that is particularly endearing.
- There is another great moment with Letts when Gillen's character cryptically confronts him in a grocery store. Letts' reaction is heartbreaking.
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