It’s probably safe to say that as a culture, we’ve all reached a sort of consensus: affairs are generally a very bad thing. But for the couple at the center of Azazel Jacobs’ subversive The Lovers, affairs aren’t so much bad (or good) as they are a fact of life. Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), a set of nearly unhappy marrieds living in an indistinguishable southern California suburb are what you’d call a dispassionate couple – drifting through life together for little more than the convenience of it all. That is, except in those rare moments, when they manage to slip off to see their very significant others.
In fact, we first meet both Michael and Mary with their respective lovers: for Michael, it’s the sprightly but emotionally intense dance instructor Lucy (Melora Walters) whose love of spontaneity keeps Michael feeling young but whose accompanying sense of manic possessiveness spells drama for his double life. Mary of course, is entwined with the younger and emotionally needy Robert (Aidan Gillen) who’s quick to assert his little power in the relationship by pressing his high-stakes ultimatum – “tell your husband and leave him for me” – whenever he gets the chance. As a result, both are itching to let their spouse into the secret of the affair and end the whole thing once and for all. There’s just one thing: their pseudo-estranged son is coming to visit. And he’s bringing his new girlfriend.
It’s a premise that could easily go the route of emotionally empty slapstick, but Jacobs is too interested in the smaller catches of the human experience to ever go too broad: a tendency that’s both a blessing to the film and a curse to its narrative flow. From its opening scene, The Lovers isn’t a film hampered by any narrative obligation, Jacobs intends to take his sweet time telling his story, lingering in the awkward quiet as Michael and Mary begin to find themselves drawn back into one another, even as they simply mimic the love-riddled gestures they usually keep only for their real objects of affection
It’s perhaps no surprise that the film’s greatest strength is in its performances: Winger and Letts are absolutely brilliant as they adapt and blend into each corner of their lives and Jacobs keeps us privy to each metamorphoses. It’s a decision that allows a deeply human look at the malaise of the latter half of life, and our inherently human obligation to find ourselves unhappy no matter the situation.
But in exchange for all that intimacy, The Lovers just crawls. Despite a slight 90-minute run time, the film feels like a lengthy operatic epic, and the same lingering that allows Jacobs to probe the emotional lives of its two protagonists also turns the film into almost a slog. Jacobs stuffs the soundtrack with almost constant instrumental music, a formative quirk I found off-putting but will no doubt strike some viewers as another artistically gorgeous choice. Perhaps distancing viewers even further, both Michael and Mary spend untold time on their prospective cell phones, surreptitiously communicating with their flames via text even while they have droning conversations with their partner about toothpaste and grocery runs. It’s a fun gag when it hits at the film’s open, but by the thirtieth time that Letts and Winger pull out their brick-y phones to smile at a screen we can’t and will never see, it seems like little more than an exercise in futility.
It’s certainly a conscious decision on Jacobs’ part not to “hurry up and get to the good stuff”, but it does seem a shame how much time the film spends on mundanity, especially when it’s emotionally sharp moments imbue the film with the unmistakable impression of genius. Ultimately, The Lovers is a lengthy and uneven journey to an absolutely sublime destination – with a deliciously transgressive and darkly funny final tag that handsomely rewards those that choose to stick around for all the messy proceedings.
The Lovers will be released by A24 and hits theaters May 5. It played last week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Click here to catch up on all of our Tribeca coverage thus far.