Movie Review: “The Lovers”

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“The Lovers,” an achingly real comedy from writer-director Azazel Jacobs, opens in medias res: Debra Winger’s Mary is sobbing on the corner of her bed, and her husband Michael (Tracy Letts) beseeches her to “please stop crying,” with all the conviction of a wet noodle. Soon he collapses next to her, centimeters apart but worlds away.

We don’t know what prompted the crying jag, but it doesn’t matter. We just know, by eavesdropping a bit on this exhausted marriage, that it isn’t the first time. There are oceans of pain in their backstory—the kind that, for these unhealthy people, only illicit lovers can help alleviate.

Michael’s cure is Lucy (Melora Walters), a tempestuous ballet teacher; Mary’s escape is Robert (Aidan Gillen), a sensitive writer. These are long-term affairs, and they threaten to kill off their dead horse of a marriage, which has calcified into lazy fictions about “client meetings” and “working late.” Neither party acknowledges the obvious, preferring instead a charade of fidelity: If they don’t speak directly about what’s happening, they needn’t have to deal with it.

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Except that a strange thing begins to happen. The more time they spend away from each other, the more they become attracted to each other: their bodies, their smells, their conversation. Funny how that works. It isn’t until a visit from their collegiate son, Joel (Tyler Ross), that Michael and Mary are finally forced to confront their unsustainable double lives.

Jacobs is a slow and patient builder of character—at times, the action is so deliberate it seems to be moving in slow-motion—and “The Lovers” is nothing if not a character piece. Its plot can be summarized in a sentence, but it wouldn’t do it justice, which is one reason why its chugging trailer is so reaching, so misleading. It’s less a twilight screwball survey of wandering libidos than it is a psychologically perceptive spin on the classic comedy of remarriage—with a sumptuous and quivering Old Hollywood score, to boot.

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For Jacobs, who is 45 but writes with the insights of a much older man, it surely helped to have Letts around for the process. The formidable writer of “Killer Joe” and “August: Osage County” is an incomparably astute observer of ugly human behavior, and the sad, paunchy, desperate-eyed Michael seems the product of one of his pages as much as Jacobs’. Winger is every bit his equal, inflecting Mary with the same hurt mixture of deviance, guilt and uncertainty, their chemistry together flawless.

The fact that Michael’s paramour teaches plies and jetes for a living is no accident. In its movements and textures, the film borrows more from dance than theater. Jacobs, Winger and Letts have crafted a pair of characters who attract, repel and repeat, like people stuck in one of Pina Bausch’s endless choreographed loops. And the movie’s wise coda reminds us that, for codependent philanderers like Michael and Mary, it always takes two to tango.

“The Lovers” opens today at Cinemark Palace 20, Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton; Movies of Delray; Cinemark Boynton Beach; Movies of Lake Worth; and AMC CityPlace in West Palm Beach.