The Lovers—The title characters are Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts), California cubicle rats long married to, and out of love with, each other. Both are in serious extramarital relationships, and have been for a while. They still share a bed and have dinner together, and unquestioningly accept each others’ transparent lies and cover stories about why they’re home late from work—at the gym, having drinks with a friend, etc—in civil, unspoken détente.
Their high-maintenance lovers—a ballet teacher (Melora Walters) for Michael, and a brooding writer (Aiden Guillen) for Mary—are impatient for them to divorce, however. When their anxiety is compounded by an impending visit from their disapproving college-age son (Tyler Ross) and his new girlfriend (Jessica Sula), the pressure gets so strong that Mary and Michael suddenly find each other the least demanding people in their lives. One morning before work they impulsively have sex, and before long they’re having a furtive, surreptitious affair, with each other.
Azazel Jacobs wrote and directed this delightful, low-key comedy-drama, a take on adultery and fidelity I hadn’t seen before. It’s full of passages of high comedy, like Michael’s indirect yet steely-voiced verbal seduction of his wife over the phone while he’s out on a date with the ballet teacher, or Mary’s struggle, distracted by thoughts of sex with her husband, to listen while the cool writer reads to her from his work.
But beyond the ingenuity of the situation, I loved the depiction of how these people live. Movies about adultery are often set among people who have all day to devote to it, the economically comfortable idle cheaters. The Lovers shows the rushed, unsatisfactory quality of adulterous encounters. It’s full of splendid details, like the cigarette burns on the tree outside Mary’s office building, where the writer waits to meet her, or the knowing glances of Mary’s and Michael’s coworkers as they scurry into work late.
This atmosphere, so rarely seen in movies that it seems almost exotic, extends to the leads. Winger and Letts look their age here, and it makes them more, not less, intensely attractive—it’s entirely believable that their younger, superficially more glamorous lovers would be the needy pursuers in the relationships. But we also see that this magnetism doesn’t make life easier for them. They’re constantly scrambling around, making excuses and apologizing, constantly hounded by the familiar middle-aged idea, not unfounded, that they’re letting everybody down.
It’s only now and then any more that I feel, watching a movie, that I have no idea how the story will turn out, and that I deeply care. The Lovers gave me that unaccustomed feeling, and its resolution seemed to me perfectly convincing and apt. It may be my favorite film so far this year.