The couple at the center of The Lovers has each been bored with the other for, it seems, years. We aren't sure what brought them to that point, but we can faintly see it in how they regard each other. He usually approaches her slowly, whether it be right before bed or in the living room with a glass of wine. She expresses surprise at almost everything he does, and there's a hint of resignation there, too. We hear from one of them late in the film that their initial romantic feelings for each other were from an age past, and maybe that's our window into this dynamic: They've known each other for too long, and they've perhaps never truly known each other.
Whatever the case, Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) seem to be complete strangers in marriage, and writer/director Azazel Jacobs's warmly funny study of that marriage brings us to an understandable point of smiling when the narrative contrives for them to find, perhaps, a rejuvenating spark that will alleviate whatever led to their mutual boredom with each other. It is also, of course, not that easy, and Jacobs's screenplay is notable for understanding that important truth.
In one of the film's better jokes, neither Michael's nor Mary's job has any specificity. They are both in dead-end office occupations, filing or presenting reports on and off for faceless bosses or otherwise making their excuses while headed off to a fling with each of their lovers. That's the film's best joke, although it's one delivered with solemnity: Driven by their boredom with each other, each party has taken a lover. Neither knows about the other's lover until a point entering the final act of the affair(s). For his part, Letts is exceptional at reacting to the developments of his own affair with only deadpan, and Winger is also quite good in a role that depends on the character's occasional aloofness.
These are performances that find a compassion that transcends any conflict that arises. Here it is twofold: Michael and Mary have informed each of their respective flings that, on a specific date (which, coincidentally, is the same), they will end their marriage to escape with their new lovers. Michael has taken up with Lucy (Melora Walters), a ballet instructor who grows increasingly worried about his commitment to the cause, and Mary is involved with Robert (Aidan Gillen), who has similar concerns. When the spark is reignited after an exhausted night of tender love and care between Michael and Mary, the lovers grow resentful, especially when Mary falls asleep during Robert's recital of his poetry and when Michael begins to neglect Lucy.
On top of it all is the imminent arrival of Michael and Mary's son Joel (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula), the former resentful of a father whom he believes to be unfaithful and the latter looking to a positive example of marriage for a template of what she is clearly seeking. The two threads must eventually collide, and they do in a scene more overtly about the situation than the characters involved in it. A precise portrayal of the complexities of marriage remains despite the explosion that happens, and the final moments of The Lovers are as bittersweet and pragmatic as they are perfect.
Debra Winger (Mary), Tracy Letts (Michael), Aidan Gillen (Robert), Melora Walters (Lucy), Tyler Ross (Joel), Jessica Sula (Erin), Eric Satterberg (John).
Directed and written by Azazel Jacobs.
Rated R (sexuality, language).
Released in select cities on May 5, 2017.