‘The Lovers’ is a strange and possibly ironically titled bleak comedy about marital discontent. It takes a premise that feels quite familiar and twists it in such a strange fashion that it comes off as romantic in the most unexpected ways possible. The film by writer/director Azazel Jacobs (‘Terri‘) is ultimately a story of true and lasting love, just in ways never quite seen before.
Debra Winger and Tracy Letts star as Mary and Michael, the lovers from the title. They’re a long married couple who years ago saw their relationship dissolve into a passionless routine. We open the film with each of them engaging in their own affairs. Mary has started seeing a vaguely accented writer played by Aidan Gillen, who lives in a shrine to himself and his plodding career. Meanwhile, Michael has started seeing a ballet instructor and dancer (Melora Walters). Both affairs are passionate, hinged on how the new partners remind the couple about the dreams and passions they have long since abandoned. Both husband and wife intend to break off the marriage for their new relationships after their son visits from college with a new girlfriend. Then something strange happens. In the midst of all the hidden drama and secrets, Michael and Mary suddenly feel their passions erupt for each other, and start to wonder who they’re really cheating on.
It’s a pretty ingenious concept for this sort of infidelity-fueled anti-rom-com. Just when the script seems to inch its way toward a predictable form, Jacobs pulls it in another direction. While the movie initially seems like yet another condemnation of middle class married malaise, it grows into something more challenging. The gray cement structures and empty suburban spaces aren’t presented as prisons, but simple realities where this story takes place. This isn’t a rally against aging institutions, but an exploration of two characters unsure of what love means to them anymore. For Winger’s character, it’s a deep connection that she feels for two men who fill inexplicable parts of her heart. For Letts’ bumbling lost soul, it’s a way for him to find purpose in pleasing and supporting someone else, with his own needs a mystery (possibly even to himself). For the two new members of this strange marriage, love is an escape and purpose they desperately need but can’t fill themselves.
It might sound like Azazel’s film is a harshly cynical condemnation of love, but that doesn’t seem to be the case by the end. These characters all get something they need from their partners and their happiness is real. The problem is the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of the emotional explosion that they crave. That sort of concept works well as an acting showcase, given that the words of the script rarely hold purely literal meaning. Winger is extraordinarily contained in her emotions, but pure in her actions (no matter how bizarre they might be). Letts portrays a broken man who often hurts others by accident with impressive empathy and warmth. They’ve both been through a lot and have unmet needs, and struggle to do well. Gillen and Walters play more conventionally broken fools in ways that they’ve done before. Their characters don’t get the same depth or resolution by design, but the actors fill in psychological blanks to create believable sour souls, despite their somewhat mysterious inner lives.
It’s also worth noting that ‘The Lovers’ is a quite funny film, if not in obviously slapstick or punchline ways. Jacobs and his cast are acutely aware of the absurdity and oddity of their characters and story, committing to it like pure drama while letting the extreme emotions and ridiculous situations get the laughs they deserve. It’s an insightful and thoughtful exploration of the sacrifices and compromises necessary for a genuine and lasting long-term relationship, explored in some of the most dysfunctional fucked-up couples ever to hit the screen. This is a strangely hopeful film beneath all the deceit and cheating. There is genuine love here, but it’s every bit as unpredictable and painful as the real thing, not the usual Hollywood fantasy.