Love may lift us up where we belong, but age tends to pull us down where we don't. Parts of us, anyway.
For these and other reasons, you don't see a wide array of movies featuring sixtysomethings in the sack. The Lovers, though, makes a notable exception for Debra Winger, paired with actor/playwright Tracy Letts in an offbeat comedy that gives us a view of marriage with a new, well — wrinkle is probably the wrong word
— a new perspective. Mary (Winger) and Michael (Letts) are empty-nesters whose union, in its third decade, is just about kaput. Michael is having an affair, a poorly kept secret. So is Mary (with Aiden Gillen), though her husband either doesn't suspect, or isn't interested enough to care.
They go to work, sneak around in the afternoon, come home at night, drink wine, watch TV, avoid eye contact and conversation, and go to bed. For a while, it seems The Lovers isn't a comedy at all, but another pitiless look at spiritually sterile suburbanites, stuck in a desultory marriage. But slowly, and ever so slightly, the movie signals that this could get funny.
Letts is tall, portly, and sad as a circus bear, and the movie uses his physique as a kind of silent-film joke. There's something comical about a long shot of Letts, in a big empty parking lot next to his Passat (can you have a salacious affair and drive a Passat?), being berated by the tiny ballet instructor (Melora Walters) with whom he has been carrying on.
The Lovers has a good idea – that these long-running affairs have become de facto bad marriages. Stale, predictable, regimented, full of obligation.
Mary and Michael come home to get away from it all, finding refuge in the strange tranquility that comes from having given up. They have in fact become strangers to each other and, as strangers, are therefore newly interesting. (It's clever acting by Letts and Winger, since so much of what registers is unspoken.)
High jinks ensue.
The movie's other good idea is the introduction of Mary and Michael's son Joel (Tyler Ross), which frames the movie in a unique way. He comes home from college, an event that is supposed to precipitate the final dissolution of the marriage — Mary and Michael have independently decided to announce their split when Joel is home.
It doesn't happen that way, but things do come to a head. Joel is furious, uncomprehending, judgmental.
He has brought his girlfriend, a gorgeous and bright fellow student (Jessica Sula). She's his first great love, he's in the throes of it, and of course thinks he knows all there is to know on the subject. What he doesn't know is what 25 years in a marriage feels like – thus, the way Mary and Michael react to his outburst, letting him throw emotional haymakers, letting him punch himself out, feels truthful.
It's their finest hour, maybe their only good one. They behave, really, pretty badly most of the time. And the movie's coda doesn't do them any favors, though you can see why writer-director Azazel Jacobs (Netflix's Doll & Em) found its dramatic symmetry irresistible.
Directed by: Azazel Jacobs. With: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aiden Gillen, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula. Distributed by: A24.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sexuality and language)