Debra Winger — hugely popular in the ‘80s — kind of throttled back working as a film actress around 1995. And while she’s worked in the industry on and off since then, it was kind of a surprise to see her name attached to a new movie in 2017. But let me be frank and say that I don’t think I’m the only person to think: “Debra Winger is still acting?” However, she is and she does a fantastic job of it in “The Lovers” — written and directed by Azazel Jacobs.
Unfortunately for Winger and co-star Tracy Letts, the script of “The Lovers” languishes in laconic pacing for the first half. That’s a shame because great acting can only do so much to elevate a film that is trying to say something about long a term marriage where the relationship has fizzled into inertia. The fact that so few films examine these kinds of things (mostly because the subject is kind of depressing) means that Jacobs has the advantage of not having to compete with films that center on the early parts of falling in love and keeping a relationship going. And while “The Lovers” doesn’t completely fail in telling its tale, it does take a certain amount of patience from the audience for the story to really kick in.
Winger and Letts play Mary and Michael, a couple who just kind of sleepwalk through life at home and work. Both are are having affairs in an attempt to feel something again, but it seems that spark isn’t quite there with their lovers Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Lucy (Melora Walters). Robert is madly in love with Mary, and Lucy clearly loves Michael. But late middle age does something to the soul of a relationship. Michael and Mary have been married for a long time, and while the passion for each other is but a distant memory, they can’t quite commit to their lovers because…well, because their son is coming home from college and it’s just not a good time. However, even that excuse masks deeper reasons they stall in ending their marriage. This is where the movie gets interesting. After watching these rather dead souls for half the movie, the story takes a bit of a twist as Mary and Michael rediscover their desire for each other. Lest you think it’s all a ruse just to spice up their marriage, you’d only be half right. Read one way, Michael and Mary’s motives are purely carnal. They like the excitement of rediscovering sex with each other. Read another way, Michael and Mary’s motives are about the joy of not living with a ghost anymore; about finding that spark of attraction that led to a long life together.
However, all that changes when their son Joel (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula) come home for a visit. Joel already has a lot of emotional baggage regarding his father. He knows he’s a lying, cheating, asshole, and he’s prepared Erin not to fall for Michael’s bullshit. But Erin is not a judgemental person, so she’s gives Michael the benefit of the doubt and teases out bits and pieces of Michael’s past and finds him rather interesting. Joel, on the other hand, is very judgemental, and doesn’t trust his dad and wonders why his mom is still with him. As the film enters its denouement, we see that Joel’s visit was a catalyst for the life changes the characters were ready to make. They just needed a push from their son.
While “The Lovers” is not a great film, it does tackle long term marriage, affairs, and what people want to make them happy life — and does so in ways that isn’t didactic, but neither is it entirely well executed. Yes, Debra Winger and Tracy Letts save the film from sinking in the first half, and their skilled acting elevates the second half with better writing and story. However, things like Mandy Hoffman’s violin based score and Azazel Jacobs screenplay tend to mute or bury some of the more compelling elements of the story that reveal themselves later in the film. Overall, you may walk away from “The Lovers” perplexed by the motives of the central characters, but also understanding that their quirks and flaws are what make them so wholly suited to each other.