Why Commit to 'The Lovers'?

The Lovers
(USA, 94 min.)
Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Melora Walters, Aidan Gillen
Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in The Lovers.
Robb Rosenfeld. Courtesy Mongrel Media
There’s little reason to commit to The Lovers. It’s a shame that this intimate two-hander blunders since it’s an admirable effort on many fronts. The Lovers casts Debra Winger (remember her?) and Tracy Letts (Indignation) in refreshingly substantial roles as Mary and Michael, a married couple for whom passion’s long stalled. It might have set Sundance ablaze had it starred H&M models in skinny jeans—or given the audience at least one character to root for by the end.

This mature indie counters the homogeneous crap at the box office (ex: Guardians of the Galaxy, Alien: Recycled, and that Jake Gyllenhaal/Ryan Reynolds one that’s basically Alien but isn’t Alien) by giving aging actors plum roles in a thoughtful production. However, one leaves The Lovers sensing why few, if any, backers take risks on a project like this one. When everyone’s home life is so disappointing, it isn’t exactly satisfying to go to the movies and watch other people suffocate. Downers can be productive films, but The Lovers has little emotional or intellectual payoff.

Problems arise quickly as each party in the marriage finds herself or himself in an affair. Writer/director Azazel Jacobs introduces the complementary infidelities through parallel scenes that show Mary with Robert (Aidan Gillen, The Wire) and Michael with Lucy (Magnolia’s Melora Walters). The set-up almost resembles two married couples joined by an affair as Mary and Robert exchange I love yous and Michael and Lucy have an everyday quarrel. This marriage shows ample signs of stagnation when Mary and Michael both go home for the day and settle into the usual pattern of lies and routine.

Jacobs employs a few too many parallels between the couples in an effort to give the parties equal weight and responsibility. The objectivity is admirable, since one can’t watch The Lovers and assign blame to only one party, but the symmetry of the film frequently robs it of its authenticity. It’s an earnest slice-of-life glimpse at marriage, if an awfully contrived one.

Just as Mary and Michael both plan to quit their marriage for their lovers—and, naturally, they both devise to time their departure with their son’s upcoming visit—a flame reignites between them. They become adulterers in their own marriage, sneaking around their lovers and workplaces to revive the passion they once shared.

The Lovers favours mid-range emotions and muted interaction. Don’t expect much by way of screaming and yelling in the style of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Revolutionary Road—but don’t anticipate the corresponding emotional payoff, either. The midrange style and direction collapses beneath an unbearable overwrought score that shrill overtures. The soundtrack for The Lovers almost seems ironic as it swells with melodramatic strings, but it’s just bad enough to strip the film of any Sirkian irony.

Mary and Michael both gasp for air as Winger and Letts dive into their roles. These thoughtful and guarded characters approach love both cautiously and recklessly. They’ve been disappointed by romance before but want to recapture the sparks from their youth. The chemistry is strong between Winger and Letts as they bring naturalism to their performances and evoke a relationship built upon years of routine and closeness, yet fading intimacy and connection. Walters is also strong as Lucy in the feistiest role of the film, while Gillen isn’t quite compelling as the whiny Robert, although both characters prove calculating foils and jealous rivals who test the strength of Mary and Michael’s healing marriage.

Jacobs nevertheless keeps the audience guessing as Mary and Michael navigate the vicissitudes of their relationships. The Lovers is the kind of film that defies expectations right when one thinks one has it all figured out. From one push comes another pulls as The Lovers juggles one’s sympathy for and allegiance with either party.

Here’s where The Lovers collapses: these characters all treat one another unfairly and badly. Within the messy will-they-or-won’t-they suspense, The Lovers never gives the audience a character worth caring about. Although Mary and Michael learn to love and respect one another, they become as fair to their partners on the side by teasing them along and exploiting their emotions to fuel their affair. There is no sense that anyone learns anything by the end, so it’s hardly worth the commitment.

The Lovers is now playing in limited release.