THE LOVERS. Starring: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aidan Gillen, Melora Walters, Tyler Ross, and Jessica Sula. Directed by Azazel Jacobs. Rated MA15+ (Strong sex scenes). 97 min.
This American comedy-drama film explores the aftermath of a disintegrating marriage of a husband and wife, who live as emotional strangers to each other. When affection is unexpectedly reestablished between them, events follow which test the relationships of everyone concerned.
A Southern Californian couple in their late 50s have been married for nearly 30 years. Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) share the same house, but they are living a life with fractured commitments.
Mary is having an affair with Robert (Aidan Gillen), an over-emotional, Irish novelist, and Michael is having an affair with Lucy (Melora Walters), a young, highly-strung, neurotic dance instructor. The drama of their alienation is reinforced by Mary and Michael each knowing the other is having an affair, and they both know to whom. Mary and Michael have delayed divorce proceedings until a visit from their son, Joel (Tyler Ross) and his new girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula).
One morning, unexpectedly, Mary and Michael find themselves resurrecting past feelings they once had for each other, and their marital relationship starts looking deliriously happy. At the same time, their “lovers” become more needy and demanding which accentuates their predicament. Their son tells his girlfriend that his parents are terrible people, and when he arrives home he can't explain to his girlfriend why they are acting so lovingly to each other. Things get increasingly complicated when the “lovers” attempt to confront their respective “marriage” partners.
Joel can't handle the situation and storms out of his parents’ house. The film ends with scenes of Mary and Michael packing their belongings together and leaving their home - Mary goes to Robert’s house, and Michael goes to Lucy. However, Michael phones Mary saying “I can’t stop thinking about you”, and the clear expectation, as the movie finishes, is that Mary and Michael will be together once more. But the viewer never sees that actually happen.
Debra Winger and Tracy Letts perform well as the ageing couple, and their scenes together are imposing. Debra Winger captures the role of an older woman, who is living with regret, and Tracy Letts forcefully dramatises an unfaithful husband who lives with the conflicts he has engendered.
The emotional impact of the couple’s cheating behaviour ultimately takes its toll, and overpowers what positive messages the film might otherwise be communicating. The movie fails to recover from the fact that broken relationships are its norm. This is a movie that questions the values of commitment, marriage, and family without resolving the issues it raises. It uses parallel screen techniques to keep conflicting relationships before the viewer in a stylised way; it looks for comedy in double betrayal; and it tries to search for honesty to fit a shifting plot line. Scripting is loose and fluctuates wildly: Mary tells her son “we messed up, but we’re not bad people”, while Robert is busily telling Mary “It’s either me or him….(otherwise) you'll never see me again”.
The real dramatic edge to this movie lies in its depiction of loneliness. Mary and Michael have grown to be lonely in their relationship to each other. They have reached the stage where intimacy has been replaced by unease, and they both have gone searching for more comfortable relationships with others outside their marriage. They “find” each other again, but also they both keep their relationship with their lovers alive at the same time.
The film has lots of twists and turns, but focuses essentially on two people, married to each other, who are emotionally isolated, and who don't know what to do with discovering a fondness that they thought they had lost. Dramatically such a theme is workable, but this film complicates the positive with too much of the negative. The film aims for charm, but its lasting emotional tone is sadness that lies deep in its plot line, unresolved.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
September 24th., 2017