THE LOVERS (2017)
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Cast: Tracy Letts, Debra Winger, Aidan Gillen, Melora Walters, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula, Lesley Fera
MPAA Rating: (for sexuality and language)
Running Time: 1:34
Release Date: 5/5/17 (limited); 5/12/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 11, 2017
People say they don't movies like they used to, but here's writer/director Azazel Jacobs' The Lovers. It's a comedy that might as well have been transported from Hollywood's Golden Age of high-concept, screwball comedies (if it had been in black-and-white and had a few edits for content, obviously).
The comedy's foundation is in the absurd lengths to which these characters will go to keep secrets, the dramatic irony of watching two deceptive people lie with bumbling inelegance (especially when we know they don't need to), and plenty of reversals of traditional roles. The film also has a heavy element of physical comedy, although it's not from pratfalls or anything of the like. It's all on the faces of the main actors, who repeatedly must tell a joke without a word being spoken.
Before we get to the specifics of what the actors are doing—and doing so exceptionally—here, it's probably important to give a brief outline of the plot. Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) have been married for at least over two decades (They have a college-age son). Michael is dating Lucy (Melora Walters) on the side, and for her part, Mary is seeing Robert (Aidan Gillen).
Jacobs offers a little bait-and-switch at the start of the film, in which the two extramarital couples are seen in short vignettes of anger and jealousy. The background music (a brilliantly subversive score by Mandy Hoffman) plays with cheerful strings and swelling orchestration behind these little scenes. Both relationships appear to be on the brink of ending. Lucy is mad that Michael doesn't make time for her, and Robert is despondent about the same thing coming from Mary. Each pairing feels like a married couple, given the passion behind them (not to mention that music).
Then Michael comes home. Mary is waiting for him. Both are surprised and then, after some apathetic pleasantries, silent.
They are the married couple. There's no passion. There's barely any communication. There's an awkwardness to the simple act of sitting on the same couch, knowing that certain formalities and conveniences have to be met.
Mary is having some wine, watching a movie on TV. She hesitantly asks Michael if he would like to join her (What else is he supposed to do in this situation?). Jacobs frames the motions of Michael moving to the couch with Mary in the foreground, sitting prone as if she's ready to strike or flee, while Michael is seen through a window to the kitchen, getting a glass from the cabinet in near slow-motion, as if he's making his way to an execution. He stands in front of the couch, and although we don't see his face, we can sense him surveying the scene. He moves a throw pillow out of the way, giving himself as much room to sit as far away from Mary without making it obvious.
There is a heightened but realistic precision to these motions. It's the sort of staging that requires the mind of a clever director and the expert timing of the performers. Letts and Winger's performances are transcendent in the way they merge the realism of this entire scenario—the characters' sense of guilt and suspicion of being found out—with physicality that is just shy of being over-the-top. In the buildup to that move to the couch, for example, Letts responds to the offer of wine with a triple-take that, within it, contains about two dozen miniature takes. It gives the impression of him saying no to himself while building up to the inevitable realization that he has nothing better to do.
Winger's performance is almost entirely in her eyes. Note the film's inciting scene, which begins the actual plot. Michael has gotten out of the shower, only to find Mary still getting dressed in the bedroom. He sits awkwardly on the bed, still in his towel (as if he's shy around a woman who has seen him naked countless times), and there's the growing realization that Mary is staring at him. There's a little dance of sorts of the bed—of stares and turns—that leads to Michael moving over about two inches. In a single raise of her eyebrows, Winger gives us a slew of conflicting emotions—curiosity and concern, anticipation and fear.
Yes, the cheating spouses find themselves in a heated moment of passion. The central joke is that Michael and Mary begin "cheating" on their lovers with each other.
The lies, which were so easy with each other, suddenly become more difficult with their respective lovers. The obvious role reversal is in how both Lucy and Robert are portrayed as the jealous, needy partner—suspicious of every phone call and text message, uncertain of their partners' feelings for them, prone to outbursts of emotion and ultimatums (Hoffman's score becomes sentimentally downtrodden in these scenes).
Both Michael and Mary have promised their lovers that, as soon as their son Joel (Tyler Ross) goes back to college after a brief visit home, they will leave their spouse. The charade becomes increasingly difficult, especially when Lucy confronts Michael with the accusation that he's seeing someone else. Is his answer—a definitive no—really a lie?
First and foremost, this is a comedy, but there's something almost sweetly twisted beneath the surface. "Almost" is key, though, because it is definitely twisted. It's the notion that these characters seem incapable of genuine love and affection except under the circumstances of deception. The film paints it in a rosy, light view for most of the film (since it is a comedy), although the climax, which involves that visit from the son and his girlfriend (played by Jessica Sula), offers a decidedly painful counterpoint. This isn't simply about them anymore.
The film is somehow both cynical and optimistic, which might seem like an impossible juggling act. Jacobs pulls it off, though, because he understands that comedy is the arena of such extremes—especially such extreme contradictions. The Lovers is all about those contradictions, from its performances, which are grounded but amplified, to its outlook, which is skeptical but sunny. It is, itself, a wise film about defeated people defeating their relationships that just happens to be a silly, very funny comedy.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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