“The Lovers” – “Cheating and lying aren’t struggles. They’re reasons to break up.” – Patti Callahan Henry
Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) have been married for eons. Perhaps many of their years together have been happy, but not recently. Residing in Santa Clarita, California, this 50-something couple share a comfortable suburban home and drive to white-collar jobs that one might find near Initech, the infamous company from “Office Space” (1999).
Although Michael and Mary have zero passion for their day jobs, their work does not create emotional heartburn, per se. No, Michael and Mary have, instead, checked out from a different job, their lifelong commitment to one another. Their marriage. On the figurative love-meter scale, their needle unfortunately resides at zero, as they sleepwalk through their mornings and repeatedly lie about staying late at the office, so they can canoodle with their respective lovers.
Yes, both Michael and Mary are cheating on each other, but their best-laid plans of starting new lives with two others hit an unexpected bump that shake their foundations in this light – but absorbing – comedy/drama from writer/director Azazel Jacobs. Shuffling romantic partners is not a brand-new cinematic concept, but “The Lovers” hooks us because of Letts and Winger’s nuanced performances and an unexpected twist that drives the main narrative.
Letts is riding high from 2016 with three very memorable supporting roles in “Indignation”, “Wiener-Dog” and “Christine”. He is an expert at playing caustic characters who seem to distantly sting from a past wrong turn taken in life. Here, Michael regrets a couple wrong turns as well but does use them as excuses to verbally sting Mary. He just keeps his distance. Michael is not without his faults, but he does not stir audience disdain for his transgressions either. He simply looks for happiness with the wrong girl, a challenging and demonstrative ballet teacher named Lucy (Melora Walters). One wonders if Michael is attracted to drama, because he does not step away from her, despite her occasional explosions.
Winger is very likeable as Mary. Now, the screenplay implies that Mary has known about Michael’s affairs for years, and therefore, she decides to follow the what’s good for the goose is good for the gander approach and found a new man, Robert (Aiden Gillen). Michael may have apparently wronged his wife for a long, long time, but Winger’s Mary does not play a victim. She seems to have calmly concluded that their imperfect marriage ran painfully adrift and reclaimed her happiness by standing tall and sharing her life with someone else, a few hours at a time.
Well, it is wonderful to see Winger on the big screen again for the 1-hour 34-minute runtime of “The Lovers”, especially because I have not seen her in a film since 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married”. In that movie, her character – in a hugely explosive scene – becomes entangled in a vicious spat with her daughter (Anne Hathaway). Winger has a history of playing tough, complicated and sometimes damaged women who are not afraid of a fight. Similar to Letts, many of her characters will not shy away from a terse argument, but Mary might. She is strong but soft, feminine and willing to talk first rather than don verbal boxing gloves. One hopes that happiness is truly in her future, even if her chosen new love interest occasionally shows his petty side.
“The Lovers” might be a small movie, but Letts and Winger show off huge amounts of talent and charisma. The two truly feel like a married couple of 30 years. Each spouse intimately knows the other’s breathing cadences, and their “secret decoder rings” translate the slightest inhalation changes. In other words, each one instantly recognizes when the other lies…and cheats. This brisk and thoughtful indie does not lie and/or cheat, but it sneaks up on us with its smarts, charm (which includes a very well-placed song, performed by Letts) and unexpected steps to find love.