The Lovers is what happens when interesting filmmakers have interesting ideas that actually make no sense in reality. It takes an intriguing premise and then strains it to upend expectations purely for the sake of doing so, all the while vacillating between morose melodrama and oddball humor until the audience is as restless and frustrated as the characters. Perhaps that’s the point, an edgy and immersive formal choice to fuse character and viewer. And if part of that point was to make us all miserable, then the film is a total success.
A solid concept girds this otherwise flighty dissection of crippling marital dynamics: what if a couple becomes so disconnected from each other and so bogged down by their mutual affairs that it leads them back into one another’s arms? The setup is ripe for great character dynamics, particularly of the comedic variety, a delicious quandary that plays out with aplomb in the film’s theatrical trailer. Extended outside a two-minute conceptual box, however, the scenario becomes quite a slog.
Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play the titular “Lovers,” and they’re great both individually and together, unearthing the complexities of relationship disintegration and wearing the fallout on their entire person, as if the heaviness adds 20 pounds to their gait and pulls their mouths into perpetual scowls. They are able – be it via skill or experience – to tap into the despair of an empty relationship with more galling precision than writer-director Azazel Jacobs is able to present such a scenario. They keep the film afloat even as we realize the narrative is carrying them inexorably adrift.
It must be a depleting drag to carry on a marriage in the midst of turmoil, but for Mary and Michael (Winger and Letts), said turmoil has been so longstanding that the affairs they’ve each been conducting have turned into drags as well. Michael spends most of his days trying not to mishandle the delicate and teetering emotions of Lucy (Melora Walters), who is nearing a breaking point after weathering Michael’s continuing string of empty promises. Mary seems less adept in the murky waters of infidelity (this isn’t Michael’s first rodeo), and her nerves are constantly rattled as a result, especially in the face of relentless pressure from Robert (Aidan Gillen) to finally make a choice. The dynamics of these affairs are similar: they sparked out of the search for something new and exciting, but have carried on long enough that the spark has fizzled. For Mary and Michael, home is awkward and isolating, but the heavy maintenance required to manage their side relationships is exhausting. So what happens when the affair becomes the primary stressor? For this married couple, they find refuge in one another, carrying out a torrid affair of their own.
There is a conventional version of this premise, one that unfolds predictably – Mary and Michael lost their way and betrayed one another, but rediscover that spark that was missing. This film doesn’t fit into that stencil, but maybe it should’ve. While the married couple reignites their romance, it’s not so much a clever scenario reversal as it is an already pitiful situation made even worse. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s appalling, but it’s never particularly engaging, since none of the characters are drawn beyond the point of a hollow archetype and their actions seem dictated by a screenplay that wants to achieve a certain conclusion without knowing how to get there. At least a traditional reconciliation sitcom knows what it wants to be. The Lovers is attempting to operate on wavelengths it doesn’t seem to fully grasp – or, more likely, it’s attempting to subvert expectations in ways that cheapen the complicated emotional space that Winger and Letts generate in their performances.