Nothing puts a spark back into a marriage quite like dual affairs. That’s the central premise behind the new independent film “The Lovers.” That title, and the infidelities at the center, might imply either a raunchy comedy or an over-the-top Lifetime movie. However, the film could not be farther from that. In fact, much like the worn-out marriage at its center, the film is so comfortable, it’s hard to find its pulse.
Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) have been going through the motions for so long, there are no motions left. In the later years of their marriage, both partners have strayed to longterm flings that turned into love. Michael finds himself with Lucy (Melora Walters), a much younger, neurotic dancer. Meanwhile, Mary carries on a serious dalliance with Robert (Aidan Gillen), an emotional writer. They both set a date with their respective lovers to break up with their spouse once their son, Joel (Tyler Ross), visits with his new girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula). Their plan is perfect, until Michael and Mary find their passion rekindled. Soon, they are blowing off their lovers to spend time with each other.
This sort of high concept idea seems rife for an old fashioned screwball rom-com or the latest Woody Allen film. Either of those approaches would have loaded the film with large set pieces, misunderstandings and zingers. For better or worse, writer director Azazel Jacobs strays from any of these temptations. The film is a more quiet, lived-in portrait of a longtime suburban married couple.
The film succeeds at pinpointing specific quirks and elements of a marriage that have been around for decades. Both Letts and Winger create a wealth of memories and life together in a series of weary looks. From simple text conversations and calls, to making dinner together, the film is an appreciation of the little things that make marriage work. The film works best moment to moment, rather than as a narrative that needs to sustain 95 minutes.
Much of what works in the film is sold by the considerable skill of both Letts and Winger. Letts manages to chart Michael’s involvement through random bursts of energy and investment. Winger, meanwhile, internalizes most of Mary’s emotions for Letts to play off of. Even as they hide their infidelities from each other, both Michael and Mary know expertly how to read each other like a book. The problem is, neither of them have wanted to pick up that specific book in quite some time. While each of these performers manage to conjure up something interesting, the same cannot be said for their lovers. Both Walters and Gillen overplay their hand, throwing off the languid balance of the film. Rather than inject the film with some energy, they come off as cheap caricatures that don’t exist in this quiet, suburban world.
“The Lovers” isn’t going to be your saucy date night out. It’s a nice film that seems almost tailor-made for someone to watch on Netflix in bed after a long day. It’s not super involving, but there’s something comfortable about it. This comfort doesn’t translate into being memorable, however. It’s not often one wishes for more cheap mainstream confections in order to punch up a film. However, the niceties of this mild-mannered film don’t quite propel it throughout its admittedly modest running time.