Movie review: 'The Lovers' complexly melds adultery, laughs, romance

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts Photo by Robb Rosenfeld, courtesy of A24

As the title suggests, double infidelity tale The Lovers happily toys with our expectations. The latest from writer-director Azazel Jacobs skirts overdone indie tropes and, while at times falling short of its weird potential, manages a novel modern love story.

The Lovers begins with a shot of a woman crying and a man trying to soothe her pain. We’re set up for an inevitable fall — but when? The movie bounces into the present, and we get a proper introduction to the dead-shark marriage of Mary and Michael (Debra Winger and Tracy Letts).

The first act sees husband and wife awkwardly tiptoeing around each other, neither ready to admit unfaithfulness. Michael is smitten with an impulsive dance instructor (Melora Walters). Mary is gaga over an impetuous writer (Aidan Gillen). Both cuckold and cuckquean have promised to leave their spouse, but to date, the trigger has not been pulled.

These initial scenes feel awkward in just the right kind of way, and as an all-seeing audience, we can laugh at the lengths to which the characters will go to keep this unnecessary secret: Mary inventing business meetings when Michael’s self-absorption means he couldn’t care less what she’s doing; Michael pretending to have drinks with a friend and then just hanging out by himself. Why do they go on?

When Mary and Michael’s son (Tyler Ross) tells them he’ll be visiting from school, both extramarital partners put the pressure on to end the marriage.

Junot Diaz said that infidelity is the most piercing betrayal — but here, given the circumstances, it appears to be the most convenient betrayal for this stagnant relationship. Both partners want out and the only thing causing them anxiety is telling one another. So, what could have been a painful climax, were the treachery one-sided, offers a happy ending.

But far from being an end, this is where Azazel Jacobs starts really having fun.

One day Mary and Michael wake up next to one another, and a groggy kiss thought to be for their paramours inexplicably rekindles their passion for one another. Now, the cheaters find themselves cheating on the people with whom they were cheating.

In recap it sounds sitcom zany, but in execution Jacobs differentiates his movie and pulls off a tough dramedy gambit: seesawing through a mess of ambivalence, having a laugh with a serious subject, and for the most part staying grounded in reality. Jacobs’ use of humor relates a sense of understanding, but in its climax, the film also addresses the awfulness of any sexual indiscretion.

The screws are tightened as the writer becomes arrogant and the dancer unhinged, and we’re carried to a climax where, much like the protagonists, we don’t quite know where things stand. When their son finally does arrive, we see there are consequences to Mary and Michael’s actions, and what until now seemed like fun and games culminates with a fundamental sadness of the two-timing experience.

In the end, Jacobs has one more trick up his sleeve, solidifying The Lovers as more than your typical indie genre blur. It’s a complex romance, situated in such a niche place. It won’t appeal to everybody, and that’s not a bad thing.

The Lovers
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aidan Gillen
Rated: R
Theater: Opens Friday, Uptown Theatre