Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers” is a complex character study of long-term relationships that takes a clever premise — what if you were cheating on your lover, with your spouse? — and uses it to explore the nuances and ultimate truths of long-term relationships. The film is anchored by a duo of powerhouse performances from Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, who play married couple Mary and Michael, with an arch sophistication mixed with genuine vulnerability.
Mary and Michael have slipped into a marital mundanity, co-existing as cordial roommates who barely speak to each other, rarely listen and seem more awkward around each other than anything else. We aren’t given much history to their relationship, but as we know it to be now, each spouse pours their energy into their extra-marital lover. For him, it’s a kooky, needy dancer, Lucy (Melora Walters), while she has a silver fox of a writer, Robert (Aiden Gillen).
But even those relationships have hit the skids in some ways. Play has become work in their affairs, and their passionate, emotional lovers require a certain amount of upkeep that Mary and Michael don’t seem to be willing to give. Suddenly, the person they sleep next to becomes more and more appealing, and a wild, secretive affair is born, complete with lunchtime romps.
“The Lovers” finds itself in its moments of detail, specificity and stillness. Long pauses punctuate the action and serve as punchlines for the often wordless visual humor. Both Letts and Winger expertly express their characters’ mental state physically, whether frazzled or downtrodden at their less-than-exciting jobs, fraught with uneasiness or comfortably tender with each other. There are times when it can feel a bit too mannered, too tight, and you wish for the film to cut loose a bit. When it does, during a visit with their son Joel (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula), the tension cracks in unexpected ways, though the break is a welcome relief.
One of the unique stylistic choices that Jacobs makes with “The Lovers” is the grand, sweeping orchestral score, composed by Mandy Hoffman. It’s unexpected for a smaller romantic indie drama, but it gives the film a sense of a romantic epic while following the quotidian routine of this couple. It adds a layer of artifice to the film, signifying that this is a heightened reality, and infuses every frame with drama and romance.
While there are times that “The Lovers” feels a bit too stultifying and stiff, the warm performances from the underrated Winger and Letts make the emotions at hand come to life, filling the screen with moments universal and divine, which is especially difficult with such morally complex characters. They prove their might as great screen actors deserving of more roles, but “The Lovers” is not about them as individual performers; it’s about these actors working in tandem with each other, the script, the director and the other actors. The film works as a whole, not a sum of its parts.
The story itself is unexpected, almost like a fable in the way it unpacks the story of the long-term relationship — the norms and expectations; the dangers and pitfalls. It’s a cautionary tale that never passes judgment, an exploration of the way that love can be a many-splendored thing, with many people, some of them twice.
Starring: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aiden Gillen, Melora Walters, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula
Rating: R for sexuality and language
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes