The Lovers

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Debra Winger and Tracy Letts are a long-time married couple having affairs with other people in The Lovers, as incisive a portrait of marital discord as American movies have seen in years.

What happens when you feel a long-dormant spark for the spouse you’re about to leave? And what happens when you put two aging pros in lead roles that give them themes of age, regret, love, second chances and sexual vitality? You get one of the year’s best movies.

Winger, in her first lead role in two decades, is Mary, a bored, middle-class wife deep into an extracurricular relationship with impatient writer Robert (Aiden Gillen). Matching Winger scene-for-scene is a quietly powerful Letts, perhaps the greatest living American playwright who impressed last year in both Indignation and Christine. Letts is Mary’s equally bored husband, Michael, and his situation—an affair with a high-strung dance teacher, Lucy (Melora Walters, Magnolia), is no less precarious.

Both Mary and Michael work in mid-level corporate jobs and spend their days running late for work, sneaking away for lunchtime trysts and making excuses to return home late each evening, a comfortable enough dynamic for a married couple that seemingly has no love for each other.

There are two early scenes in The Lovers that tell us everything we need to know about a marriage that, if not in a death spiral, is in permanent paralysis. In the first, the couples prepares for bed, speaking only of their son’s messages and requisite toothpaste inanities before quickly rolling over to play dead.

And then there’s the moment when Mary, looking forward to a nightcap alone in front of the television, is forced to invite Michael, who has returned home unexpectedly early, to join her on the sofa, an exchange of extreme discomfort.

In most movies, clandestine trysts up the ante of getting caught, but eschewing comedy and sitcom set-ups for moments of insight and practicality, The Lovers presents an almost casual arrangement in which neither Michael nor Mary is too worried—they even call each other from their dates—each assuming the other just doesn’t care.

At about the midpoint of The Lovers we wonder if, perhaps, the picture has much more up its sleeve than the decision of whether to stay or go. But boy, it’s just getting started.

Having promised their new significant others a rapidly approaching marital break-up, each is certain they are ready to move on. But life throws an expected curve when they find themselves rekindling…well, something.

What emerges from this set-up, once you get past the roundelays and their respective players, is a film that grows and deepens vastly to accommodate reflections on second chances and the elasticity of love, as well as the forces that chip away it, like dreams that didn’t happen and failures to live up to the “bill of goods,” as Michael puts it, you probably sold someone who believed in you.

Things deepen upon the arrival home of college-aged son Joel (Tyler Ross), resentful of his parents’ longtime bitterness and determined not to make the same mistakes with his own girlfriend, well played by Jessica Sula. This powder keg ignites during a family visit where Joel is surprised by his parents’ new dynamic.

Writer-director Azazel Jacobs (Doll & Em) raises questions about what long-term relationships do to us and what we, in turn, do to our partners; of our own failed dreams and how they manifest in the people we become, often whom we don’t like; whether we can ever truly change our opinion about our partner once our mind has been made up; and if marriage is an unavoidable destructive force.

The sort of vital indie picture frequently produced a few decades ago, even by Hollywood—which used to be interested in movies about adult relationship dynamics—it’s the kind of film that has all but vanished in today’s movie landscape of blockbusters crowding the local multiplex.

Winger, the A-list star of the 1980s and early 90s who racked up leading lady status in pictures like Urban Cowboy, An Officer and Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, was both a box office star and an Oscar-nominated actress, perhaps the most prolific of her time.

A self-imposed hiatus led to a long absence from the screen with only one credit of note—Jonathan Demme’s scorching 2001 family drama Rachel Getting Married—and a feeling that we might never see her back in a leading role.

Thankfully, The Lovers gives her a lot to do—she’s a mother, wife, lover and career woman, alternately confident, depressed, emboldened, afraid, maternal and, well, very sexy at age 61.

Letts, who gave a pair of last year’s best screen performances, is no stranger to vivid portraits of marital decay, having memorably starred in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at both Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theater and subsequently on Broadway.

A pair of late moments give both actors unforgettable moments of emotion. For Letts, it’s a surprising supermarket confrontation that sends him reeling. And Winger makes much from a scene of contemplation involving a car searching for true north.

Funny and often painful, The Lovers is a movie that shows us things we sometimes uncomfortably recognize as de rigueur in our personal lives, and presents a situation of infidelity and possible reconciliation without easy answers. Think that’s a small thing? Not today, where actors like Letts and Winger rarely get leads in American movies, yet their contemporaries in the American movie-going public are still buying ticket. What gives?

The final scenes will undoubtedly divide audiences, but the expressions on the faces of the characters should be our barometers. They’re telling is, clearly, that the right decisions were made.

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