The Lovers (2017)

The Lovers is that rarest of cinematic endeavors: a truly adult romance. By “adult,” I don’t mean “explicit” (though The Lovers does have one or two depictions of orgasm both tender and slightly humorous), but genuinely grown up. Rather than dwelling in puerile depictions of marital infidelity that result in either suffering (Unfaithful) or humor (It’s Complicated), The Lovers treats of the subject with a carefully structured depth, complexity, and even messiness that is at once funny and deeply moving.

Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) are an aging married couple settled into a comfortable routine of largely ignoring each other. They are both having affairs—Mary wwith the charming Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Michael with the somewhat unhinged Lucy (Melora Walters). Though both are ostensibly concealing this fact from their spouse, there’s the distinct impression throughout the film that the couple is tacitly aware of each other’s infidelities. Things come to a head in all the relationships when Mary and Michael’s son Joel (Tyler Ross) comes for a visit with his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula). The parents decide that they’ll set their respective affairs aside for one last weekend with their son, after which (they promise their lovers) they will separate. Things, naturally, are not so simple as that.

The Lovers walks a fine line between comedy and drama (much like human relationships themselves). Mary and Michael have an awkward relationship, one in which they’re barely able to speak to each other without stammering or stumbling. But their unhappiness seems to extend even to their affairs—the film opens with Mary assuring Robert that she really does love him, while Lucy and Michael’s relationship appears to consist mostly of distrust, fighting, and making up. But as circumstances drive Mary and Michael closer to one another, the complications increase: nascent feelings come out and memories of a good life (or what they wanted to be a good life) resurface to muddy the waters.

The very messiness of the relationships makes for good comedy—and there is quite a bit of good comedy in The Lovers, which exploits its two main characters’ comedic talents to the full. Winger and Letts are by turns charming, annoying, funny, and, above all, profoundly human. The awkwardness between Mary and Michael transforms to a tentative courtship (including a truly hilarious bit of verbal foreplay involving Chinese food), which in turn makes the audience increasingly invested in their relationship. Their son Joel, meanwhile, is almost horrified by his parents’ newfound interest in each other. In his first introduction, he tells his girlfriend to hit him if he ever starts behaving like either of them, a canny bit of character development that hints that Mary and Michael’s past was probably never halcyon. It’s both hard not to root for the pair, and hard to root for them. Mary is cold and evidently unhappy; Michael floundering in a dull job and an apparent need for constant drama in relationships. Their flaws linger just beneath the surface, and the film leaves open the question whether or not they will ever be able to make it past those flaws, with or without each other.

The Lovers’s biggest stumble is in the depiction of Robert and Lucy, both of whom struggle to exist as believable individuals. Granted that they are mostly there to give shape to the central relationship, they are still less rounded, less subtle, than either Mary or Michael. This problem is particularly apparent in Lucy, who’s dramatic to the point of near hysteria. But Robert is also a bit of a dullard who wants to force Mary into finally making a choice between himself and Michael—there’s some indication that they’ve been through something similar before, and Robert is all but fed up with the situation. The tinges of madness in Lucy and vindictiveness in Robert might have been explained if more time and attention was paid to the backgrounds of the two relationships, but because the film prefers to dwell on the lead relationships, those elements remain secondary and unresolved.

Though its subject is very messy, The Lovers is not itself a messy film. It treats its characters with respect and understanding without justifying their behavior. It’s precisely constructed, much being done with the silences and awkward pauses, the tentative movements of bodies, the unspoken words, and unfinished conversations. In that, it is a deeply satisfying film for anyone craving a step outside of Hollywood superficiality and into a deeper, richer realm of human relationships. The Lovers does not presume supply any easy answers or unambiguously happy endings. What it does supply is a charming and profound exploration on what it means to love someone.

The Lovers premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. It hits cinemas May 5.

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