** out of ****
(for strong language and sexuality)
Released: May 5, 2017 limited; May 26 expands
Runtime: 94 minutes
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Debra Winger, Tracey Letts, Melora Walters, Aidan Gillen, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula
It’s a shame when a filmmaker gets a great idea for a movie involving things he apparently knows nothing about.
The Lovers is a story of a middle-aged husband and wife that, unbeknownst to each other, are both having extra-marital affairs. But just as they are about to drop the bomb on the other that they’re leaving and want a divorce…they start to fall in love again.
It’s the kind of premise you wish Woody Allen or Nora Ephron would’ve explored in their heydays, but instead we’re left with a take from Azazel Jacobs, a director with a few obscure indies and some TV episodes to his name.
His limited skill as a filmmaker is problematic enough; this is a blandly shot piece of dull-looking naturalism. But the bigger issue here is that Jacobs has neither the life experience to pull from nor an intuitive understanding of humanity (or marriage) to tell this story with any insight, real humor, or credibility.
The final result is rarely convincing, let alone perceptive or moving, thus wasting two perfectly cast leads (one of which is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright) who probably could’ve come up with something much more truthful and resonant if they’d been allowed to improvise the whole thing.
Thinly written in every regard, The Lovers is padded with busywork scenes that get the plot from A to Z but reveal nothing surprising, specific, or complex about its central characters, Michael and Mary, beyond their obvious surface anxieties.
Seen too rarely on the big screen, Debra Winger’s wry talents are horrendously underused, and Tracy Letts (the Tony-winning writer of August, Osage County, the darkly comic epic of family dysfunction) is given nothing to work with in a role he could knock out of the park.
Everything unfolds rather mechanically, going back and forth between Michael and Mary’s awkward life at home and their affairs outside of it. We never really see true connection, only engineered conflict, as both affairs speed toward a “now or never” decision.
There’s a good deal of pat arguing and angst, but none of it rises above anything distinguishable from quickly-rushed TV melodramas. It’s forced, never organic or specifically motivated, and the dialogue isn’t particularly clever either. Nothing rings true, only contrived, including the out-of-nowhere moment that Michael and Mary become passionate again.
Letts and Winger actually mask these inadequacies longer than should be possible. Perhaps as someone desperate for mature, grown-up fare I was slower to the bleak reality of this flat drama than I might otherwise have been, but I won’t steal any credit from Winger and Letts for working miracles either. Suffice it to say, these two make up for a lot, particularly Letts whose ability to be passionately present, with instinctive spontaneity, rivals that of Meryl Streep.
Jacobs’ other big assist comes from composer Mandy Hoffman. Her throwback score feels suited for New York set rom-coms, layered with even more melancholy. Hoffman’s work deserves better material to underscore. She, along with Winger and Letts, provides a sophistication that Jacobs’ efforts completely lack.
The third act really goes south with the entrance of the couple’s son, when he visits from college with his new girlfriend. An obnoxiously resentful stereotype, he exists simply to vent anger and bitterness at his parents, turning this labored exercise from frustrating to actively annoying. The entire script feels like a first draft that a better director would not have settled for, and likely overhauled.
The real kicker: as happy endings go, this one’s pretty messed up. Swap out the “v” in the title for an “s”, and that unfortunately describes every audience who ends up sitting through The Lovers.