Movie Review: The Lovers
In this bleak and tender view of relationships, a married couple carrying on affairs with other people find a renewed interest in one another
Starring: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aiden Gillen
Directed by: Azazel Jacobs
Running time: 97 minutes
By Jay Stone
“We’re almost out of toothpaste.”
This is Michael (Tracy Letts) — an ordinary 50something whose bland exterior is stretched thin over the bitter disappointments of an ordinary 50something — speaking to his wife Mary (Debra Winger), a careworn beauty whose own failures have been folded into an ironic distance. Michael and Mary have been married for many years and both are now carrying on extramarital love affairs. Both of them say “sorry” a lot, mostly to their lovers. Only at home, where all hope is dead, can they be comfortable in their boredom. Toothpaste isn’t a loving reminder; it’s a conversation.
This is the world of The Lovers, a movie whose title is more a caustic joke than a hopeful description. It’s set in a climactic few days in Michael and Mary’s marriage, when their estranged son Joel (Tyler Ross) is coming for a few days with his girlfriend and they can use the visit to finally put an end to the hollow remnants — the ashes — of their relationship.
Except that something funny happens one morning: Michael and Mary wake up, kiss, look astonished — as if they have awoken and kissed many times recently, but just not each other — and make love. Something has come back; a familiar feeling to anyone who has left a lover, or a job, or an address and is surprised to see one final burst of something, like the surprising spurt of toothpaste that comes out of a tube just before it is truly, finally empty.
The Lovers is something of a human comedy, in the classic sense of not being funny except to those who are far enough removed from dead and dying love — or empty tubes of Colgate — to appreciate the pain. Filmmaker Azazel Jacobs (Terri, Momma’s Man) concentrates on the little details of adultery: the apologies, the needy lovers, the commitments (“I’m going to tell him. Promise”) that are mostly delaying tactics, the frantic lateness of everything. Love is endlessly elastic, but time is always short.
We meet Michael and Mary well into their collapsed relationship — the technicalities of abandonment have coalesced into a kind of genial friendship, with both mates lying about “working late” or “grabbing a drink” and pretending to believe such face-saving alibis — and Jacobs relies on us to fill in whatever reasons we might want to invent. Likewise, the re-awakening of interest in one another is never explained, except as a sort of perversion of the excitement of the affair: if you can feel alive with a new lover, is it possible to feel the same thrill by cheating with an old one?
The Lovers is something of a human comedy, in the classic sense of not being funny except to those who are far enough removed from dead and dying love — or empty tubes of Colgate — to appreciate the pain.
The excitements are likewise taken on faith. Michael is seeing Lucy (Melora Walters), a dance teacher who is perpetually in a snit about her role as the other woman, and whose antennae have picked up something about Michael’s new interest in his own wife. (Michael denies everything with, “Yuk. As if.”) Mary, meanwhile, is involved with Robert (Aiden Gillen, whom I originally mistook for an amazingly well-preserved Peter Riegert), a writer of the type who reads you long excerpts of his work and wonders what you think of it.
Neither seems much of a bargain, but again, we don’t know how we got there, nor do we see such passions that have managed to squeeze through all the apologies. Many of the pieces don’t seem to fit; The Lovers is in some ways a random collection of observations about marriage, betrayal and whatever it is that allows couples to maintain a collegial interest in one another after everything else is gone.
The second half of the film, the arrival of Joel and his girlfriend (Jessica Sula), strips away another layer and brings us back to the early days of the marriage. We see it through Joel’s eyes: his anger at his father’s philandering, his surprise that his parents seem to be getting along all of a sudden, and his seething resentment at both. Letts — a superlative playwright (August: Osage County) as well as an award-winning stage actor (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) — has a more theatrical approach to the melodrama, but it’s Winger who brings it alive with an earthy performance that breathes some reality into the character’s desperation.
It ends with a version of Chekhov’s theory that a gun introduced in the first act (or, in this case, a piano introduced in the third one) has to be used. It provides a touching coda for something of a surprise ending. It doesn’t make much sense emotionally, but when it comes to love, what does?
THE EX-PRESS.CA, June 20, 2017
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