The Lovers (A24, R)

Here’s my message to Hollywood: Send more Debra Winger!

The comedy of remarriage was developed during Hollywood’s Golden Age as a way around the Hays code, which prohibited the on-screen depiction of adultery. Some of the most effective films of the era drew on the conventions of this genre, among them It Happened On Night (1934), The Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), and Adam’s Rib (1949). The basic setup for this genre—a couple begins together, falls out, and gets back together—allowed screenwriters to flirt with the suggestion of extracurricular desires without incurring the wrath of the censors.

The members of the principal couple in a Golden Age comedy of marriage were typically young and glamorous, with older characters relegated to supporting roles or comic relief. Given that background, it’s interesting to see how Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers employs elements of the comedy of remarriage in a story about a mature and decidedly non-glamourous couple in California who are ready to call it quits. (Or are they?)

Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) are Mr. and Mrs. Average, if your point of reference is baby boomers of the comfortable middle class. Both work at office jobs (exactly what they do is never spelled out) and they live in a spacious home in some unnamed suburb. They’ve both been cheating for years, Michael with a ballet instructor (Lucy, played by Melora Walters) and Mary with a writer (Robert, played by Aiden Gillen). That the other man and woman are somewhat younger and work in the arts is no accident, because they provide the passion that has long been missing from Michael and Mary’s prosperous but unexciting lives.

Michael and Mary are about to call an end to it all when the spark unexpectedly returns to their relationship, and before you know it they’re screwing like teenagers. They put off the date for their official split-up, which doesn’t sit well with Lucy and Robert. Life is further complicated by the arrival of their adult son, Joel (Tyler Ross) and his beautiful and accomplished girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula). Soon Michael and Mary’s lives become like a balloon that keeps getting more and more air pumped into it—you know the present situation can’t continue indefinitely, but exactly when it will explode and where the pieces will land remains an open question.

The Lovers feels like a filmed version of a play, perhaps a farce without all the door slamming. That is, it often feels mechanical, with things happening on the screen because the structure of the plot needs them to happen (for instance, to set up a clever parallel) rather than because the events and behaviors in question have developed organically from the characters. That’s a bit of a problem because while all manner of artificialities are acceptable on stage, for the most part The Lovers presents itself as a pretty conventional, naturalistic movie rom-com. Fortunately, the actors are so good that they carry it off, aided by Mandy Hoffman’s waltz-heavy score—and what music could be more appropriate for a comedy about mature love?

The Lovers is not a great movie, but it’s enjoyable, and is certainly worth checking out if you’re a fan of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies.  It’s particularly good to see Debra Winger in a leading role once again, giving her a chance to prove that she still has the chops that resulted in three Oscar nominations between 1983 and 1994. So here’s my message to Hollywood: Send more Debra Winger! | Sarah Boslaugh
 

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