Ihe Lovers is a portrait of marital discord that feels familiar and staid. It immediately casts viewers into a morass of tumult and tears, and we obligingly yearn to learn more about how the marriage of Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) became corroded. We await clues about what drew Mary to her needy paramour, Robert (Aidan Gillen), or Michael to his intense inamorata, Lucy (Melora Walters). At the same time, we've seen this story before, and we feel like we've kinda got these characters pegged.
Grace notes enrich the minuet in writer-director Azazel Jacobs's comedy of manners. Mary and Michael's icy coupling isn't the most pitiable part of their lives. Rather, it's the harried lengths they go to sate needy lovers who have become as tedious as their spouses. Mary and Michael are constantly late to their humdrum jobs, with Mary stealing away for nooners and Michael for after-work trysts. When Lucy starts to ring more frequently—her caller ID on Michael's smartphone reads "WORK"—Michael starts concocting phony encounters with friends to cut short their conversations and get-togethers. While Mary and Michael are each unaware of the other's infidelity, both appear quietly resigned to the possibility and to contending with the charade of deception—as long as it doesn't land on their doorstep.
Mary and Michael separately promise their lovers they will end their marriage in a couple of weeks, after a visit from their resentful son, Joel (Tyler Ross), who bears the unseen scars of his parents' lifeless union. But a funny thing happens on the way to splitsville. As their affairs become more monotonous, cheeky texts and silly playacting lead Mary and Michael to find renewed romance in, well, each other. "Are you sleeping with her?" a suspicious Lucy asks Michael, the question heavy with obvious irony.
The bulk of this unintentional chamber play is propelled by the performances of Winger and Letts, the latter's renowned stage experience on full display. Mary and Michael betray more mutual weariness than outward antagonism, a trait they extend to their lovers. Mary dozes off as Robert, a writer of sorts, drones on from his latest manuscript. Michael prefers perusing the newspaper to watching Lucy, a dance instructor, rehearse her latest routine.
As Mary and Michael rekindle their romance in and out of bed, The Lovers seems bound for an inevitable finale. Instead, Jacobs interjects an unexpected detour that reconfigures the thrust of the narrative. The denouement, and by extension the film itself, feels oh so French, steeped in relaxed sexual mores, casting off the suffocating strictures of both monogamy and puritanical marriage. It exalts the notion of love outside matrimony, particularly after a wife has borne children, and embraces older people as worldly sexual beings. Hearts can be broken, but by the ruin of personal amour rather than the dissolution of conjugal constructs. Spouses come and go, but lovers are forever.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cheaters Win."