The Lovers (2017)
Written & Directed by Azazel Jacobs
Mary and Michael have been married for over a quarter of a century. Their marriage hasn’t gone up in a cloud of smoke, but it has fizzled to the point they both have secret affairs. Michael has told Lucy that after their son’s visit in the next week he will announce he is leaving his wife. At the same time, Mary has told Robert she will sit everyone down during their son’s visit and relay the new changes coming. However, Mary and Michael wake up in each other’s arms one morning. One thing leads to another, and they are suddenly having an affair with each other behind their lovers’ backs. When their son, Joel and his girlfriend arrive, things get even more complicated.
The opening, garishly romantic notes of The Lovers immediately reminded me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. That film was a play on the romantic comedy tropes that managed to subvert them yet actually resonate as a genuine love story. The Lovers treads that same territory of playing with audience expectations and delivers a movie that I cannot say I have ever seen before. The direction the plot goes over the course of the hour and thirty minute run time is highly unpredictable. I was utterly shocked by the final moments where we see what the future outlook for this couple will be. The Lovers ends up being a profoundly romantic movie but also not afraid to examine the ugliness of love.
Anchoring the picture are its leads: Tracy Letts and Debra Winger. In recent years, I have found myself drawn more and more to films featuring older actors in the leading role, especially women. I think our most talented older female actors are mind-blowing in how they walk the line of such nuance. Laura Dern has quickly ascended that list of people I watch for. Cate Blanchett. Tilda Swinton. These are women on the cusp of 50 and into their 60s who are delivering some of the best performances in cinema at the moment. Debra Winger is an actress whose name I know but whose work has always remained largely obscured to me. The films she was featured in during the 1980s just weren’t the sort of movies I would have been drawn to as a kid. Now I find myself itching to revisit her work. In the Lovers, Winger knows how to tell a complicated story with such small gestures and reactions. By the end of the picture, I knew so much about her inner life that was entirely said through her choices and work with the director.
Tracy Letts is an actor whom most people would likely know as a playwright and writer. He won a Tony for August: Osage County. He’s written some beautiful screenplays like Killer Joe and Bug, both of which were directed for the screen by William Friedkin. You might also recognize him as the father in Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut Lady Bird from last year. Letts, much like Winger, allows so much of his performance to come out of the non-verbal aspects. His heavy sighs when seeing Lucy calling, his pathetic performances trying to cover up his ever confusing romantic entanglements, and the quiet way in which he begins to regard Mary in a new light all arise from small choices.
Director Azazel Jacobs spent much time between his previous project and The Lovers. In 2011 he released Terri, another quiet indie comedy, but that film didn’t resonate with me as deeply as this one. Jacobs works diligently not to make a movie that places judgment on Michael or Mary. He is merely showing how complicated love can be, how it inevitably fades yet can be reignited in the simplest moments. Composer Mandy Hoffman delivers a score that recalls that sweeping romanticism of the aforementioned Punch-Drunk Love and works as an ironic counterpoint to the ridiculous gestures Mary and Michael make to their respective lovers. This is a film that reminds us to be gentle with each other’s hearts and doesn’t give false hope, but rather a realistic form of that sentiment.