So: let’s break this review down into three things The Lovers gets right and the one thing The Lovers gets wrong, with there being an overlap. When I’m this split on a picture, I find it’s best to break it down on a very simple level and see where I stand after the smoke clears.
The Lovers is about a long-time married couple, Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), who couldn’t have less tolerance for one another at this later stage in life. They are still together out of habit more than anything else. Unbeknownst (or not) to one another, both are engaged in affairs with younger, more vibrant people. Michael is seeing a dance teacher, Lucy (Melora Walters), and Mary is seeing Robert (Aiden Gillen), a writer. One morning, on a lark, Michael and Mary ‘reconnect’ and begin to rediscover a passion they haven’t felt in a very long time, forcing them to then begin deceiving their lovers in the same way they continue to deceive one another. When their son, Joel (Tyler Ross), comes home for a visit, the couple are confronted with some hidden truths about themselves that lead the film to its veritable conclusion.
Let’s start with what The Lovers gets right:
Southern California. With the dull, lifeless colors on display, and the hum-drum mundanity of everyday life, The Lovers is the most authentic cinematic depiction of So-Cal I’ve ever seen. We truly feel what Michael and Mary are going through in large part because of the visuals of how they live their lives. We understand why they are doing what they are doing and why this life they’ve made for themselves is just not enough. Writer/Director Azazel Jacobs uses Southern California as a character itself, influencing and informing the actions of his characters. Hell, I lived in So-Cal for three-years and was horrified at some of the memories this brought back.
The score. I’ve heard a lot of dissenting opinions on this, but I thought Mandy Hoffman’s orchestral approach to The Lovers added this dry sense of plodding that only heightened what the characters were doing. The score almost matches the boredom and malaise of the marriage we’re experiencing and it makes the heightened moments of the film feel more heightened because it’s such a sharp contrast from what we’ve seen before. On the surface, it might seem like it wouldn’t work, but that is what makes truly great film music – the unexpected.
The cast. For my money, Debra Winger is the second greatest actress in the history of film, next to Meryl Streep. She just has this intensity and power to her presence that’s been there since her earliest work. Her brief scenes in Rachel Getting Married created a character and dynamic that almost stole the film from Anne Hathaway, a difficult task to accomplish in that film. And her chemistry with Tracy Letts us palpable. Letts himself is a master thespian and brings such a rich and oddball character to life with gusto. We can both see why Michael and Mary were attracted to one another, and why they might have grown apart. Winger and Letts are brilliant here, with sharp, concise writing to really put some meat on the bones of this picture.
And now let’s talk about what almost sinks The Lovers…almost:
The cast. There’s the cross-over. As natural and believable as Winger and Letts are here, that is how over-the-top and cartoonish their lovers are. I can’t fault Melora Walters and Aiden Gillen. They are both terrific performers. But what they are asked to do here is be zany villains that end up driving us crazy, when there might have been a more thoughtful way to really show us how they were being treated and effected by all this. Had the rest of the film not felt so real, maybe their performances wouldn’t feel like they’re from a completely different picture.
The contrasts in the performances are best represented in the character of Joel, played skillfully by Tyler Ross. By the time he appears, Joel has been built up so much that we expect a certain amount of drama and bombast. We understand what Joel thinks about his parents’ relationship so we go into every scene with him informed to an extent. This makes Joel’s ‘explosion’ both predictable and unexpected. Joel is the ‘Deus ex machina’ of this piece and Ross really brings a depth of understanding, showing us how his parents’ unhealthy relationship has effected his life. It’s a performance that’s big, but believably big. Ross never drifts into cartoonish territory and we never feel like he isn’t the sum of all the parts that have created him. Had Walters and Gillen been given that kind of depth, even in limited amounts, they might have worked for me.
Late in the film we get a musical moment of Letts singing “It Must Be Love” and it’s one of the grandest moments in cinema of the entire year. Because director Jacobs doesn’t handle it the way you’d expect. There is some real discovery and unexpected tenderness in the performance and it helps leave The Lovers resting in our brains on a note of excellence. In fact, there is a great deal of excellence in the film – enough for it to be easily recommended. But I couldn’t help but think of all the little changes that could have been made to take this flick into the stratosphere. It’s so close to getting there. The Lovers has all the right pieces on the board and knows exactly how it wants to attack. But I am betting it wishes it hadn’t sacrificed those couple of pawns.