Terms of Estrangement: The Lovers

By Pamela Zoslov

The Lovers, a romantic comedy featuring the return to the screen of the elusive Debra Winger, reminds me of the adultery-themed farces that were prevalent in the 1960s, like A Guide for the Married Man (1967), in which practiced philanderer Robert Morse coached Walter Matthau on the best techniques for cheating on his wife.

In The Lovers, a middle-aged couple, Michael and Mary (Tracy Letts and Ms. Winger), both have lovers on the side. Michael, who works a cubicle job for a land surveying company, is involved with Lucy (Melora Walters), a dancer who is pressuring him to leave his wife. Mary’s lover is the much younger Robert (Aiden Gillen), a poet, who is also demanding that Mary end the marriage. Michael and Mary, who have a college-age son, have become just roommates, exchanging a few perfunctory words in passing (“We’re almost out of toothpaste”), on the way to and from their respective liaisons. Neither suspects the other is having an affair, but you get the impression neither would be terribly upset about it.

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Marital ennui, with wine: Winger and Letts in The Lovers.

Both Mary and Michael have promised their impatient lovers that they will come clean to their spouses after a visit by their son and his girlfriend. But something strange happens. One day, their passion for each other is unexpectedly rekindled. Mary and Michael find themselves sneaking away from their jobs, not to meet their lovers but to have sex with each other. They start lying to their lovers about their whereabouts, sneaking intimate phone calls to each other and dithering about the divorce. This is the stuff of French sex farce, except in this film it’s rendered in a slow, deliberate style, full of long stares and odd pregnant pauses. No frantic door-slamming here.

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Passion rekindled.

Having established this interesting premise, the film doesn’t seem to know where to go with it. In a plot contrivance, the much-anticipated visit by the couple’s son, Joel (Tyler Ross) and his sweet, pretty girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula) provokes a crisis. Joel notices his parents unexpectedly canoodling after years of estrangement. Secrets are revealed, and Joel is enraged about his parents’ deceptions. Mary and Michael are forced to to make a decision about their marriage.

The strength of the film is its cast. Winger, the tempestuous leading lady whose long absence from films inspired a documentary, is the film’s main attraction, vivid and nuanced as the woman struggling to balance the demands of her lover, her job, her newly revivified marriage and her son. Tracy Letts, the acclaimed playwright (“Osage: Orange County”), screenwriter and sometime actor, is appropriately befuddled as the husband caught betwixt two lovers, one of whom, the dancer Lucy, is fragile and possibly dangerous — at one point she literally hisses at her rival, Mary.

The screenplay, written by Azazel Jacobs (who also directed), is a bit schematic. No context is given for the relationships, so have no earthly idea why Lucy is so desperately attracted to the paunchy, older Michael, or how Mary got involved with her Irish poet. (He’s cute, but so dully earnest that Mary falls asleep while he’s reading her his verse.) We also have to fill in the blanks about how Mary and Michael became estranged; presumably, the marriage just went stale, the way marriages do; but the audience shouldn’t have to work so hard to color in the blank spaces.

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Tyler Ross, Winger and Jessica Sula.

In those ’60s adultery farces, marital contentment was usually restored after husbands strayed, or contemplated straying. In A Guide for the Married Man, Walter Matthau realized that there’s no place like home, especially when Inger Stevens is waiting there. The Lovers is more melancholy in its resolution, which seems appropriate in our much less sunny times. Grade: B

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