There is a new movie called The Lovers that takes on one of the oldest dramatic themes ever—adultery—and manages to confound our expectations. The writer and director, Azazel Jacobs, is what I would call an artist of the commonplace. His characters tend to be more annoying than lovable because, I suspect, the scale is far too often weighed down with the latter in films because of a desire to soothe an audience. Jacobs’ dares to present the embarrassingly boring side of life.
The Lovers opens with a balding middle aged man, played by Tracy Letts, asking a woman named Lucy, played by Menora Walters, to please stop crying. Lucy wants him to finally tell his wife about them. This scene is followed by another with a middle-aged woman played by Debra Winger, talking with a somewhat younger man played by Aiden Gillen. He wants her to finally tell her husband about them. And as we might expect, and as we soon discover, the Letts and Winger characters, Michael and Mary, are husband and wife, in a marriage that has become listless and indifferent, and neither of them aware the other one is also having an affair. Each of them is putting off the divorce until their son makes an expected visit with his new girlfriend, at the end of which visit everything will come out in the open.
But in the three week period prior to this upcoming visit, something weird happens. Michael and Mary, in a sudden early morning impulse, start making love. And this, along with an escalation of silly and rather crass romantic wordplay, results in them having an affair with each other. Yes, I mean it’s just like an affair, because they both conceal it from, and lie about it to their lovers.
Now, this sounds like a clever idea for a romantic comedy. But if that’s what you go to The Lovers wanting to see, you will be disappointed, as evidently a few critics have been. Yes, there are funny moments, but Jacobs is an anti-romantic. The characters in this film live in a rather commonplace looking suburb, and they have fairly boring office jobs. Their humanity comes through not through their passion, but through letting down their guard and getting hurt. The fact that Michael and Mary reignite their feelings because they’re cheating on other people is a darkly ironic take on sexual intimacy. And to accentuate that, the film has a lush romantic full orchestra score by Mandy Hoffman that deliberately clashes with the ordinariness of the people. This is a risky strategy, and I have to say I don’t think it works completely, because at times it’s laid on awfully thick. But it’s definitely ironic, a kind of snicker at the conventions of high romance with its sweeping emotional effects, and I know this because the music is silent when the people on screen are being honest with themselves.
The four main players are excellent, and especially fine are Tracy Letts and Debra Winger as the married couple. It’s particularly nice to see Winger at the center of a film again. The Lovers is an interesting, but thorny film. Jacobs enjoys poking the audience in the ribs suddenly with his sideways abrasive point of view about people and relationships. If you go to see The Lovers without expecting anything, you may find yourself puzzling over some of the actions and motives in your own life, which I think is one of the things art should try to inspire.