When it comes to the grand annals of storytelling genres, the bedroom farce is maybe one of the oldest and most reliable of workhorses in the stable. Mixed metaphors aside, from Shakespeare to Lubitsch, Wilde to Wilder, or Coward to Ephron, the various ins and outs of intertwining love affairs between (very) consenting adults have long been the focus of an innumerable amount of films, plays and sitcoms.
Into this milieu steps Azazel Jacobs’ ‘The Lovers’, the story of Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts), a middle-aged couple going through the motions of a marriage that long ago lost any sense of passion or even just real feeling. Yet each of them have found that passion and feeling elsewhere - for Mary, it’s Robert (Aiden Gillen), an Irish writer, whereas for Michael, it’s Lucy (Melora Walters), a ballet teacher. Though both of them make promises of divorce and separation to their younger lovers, talk of dates and plans remain just that – talk. Until, that is, an accidental act of intimacy reinvigorates something in Mary and Michael’s marriage, and the two begin what I guess might be called an intra-marital affair. While this may sound like the set up to an uproarious farce that could have been made by any of the artists mentioned above, in reality it is something quite different, for better and for worse.
Rather than going for cheap jokes or easy clichés, Jacobs drenches his high concept in a gentle naturalism, treating what might sound like an outrageous premise as the impetus for a quiet character piece. What he’s interested in isn’t salacious humour or gaudy sex romps, but rather the ways in which loneliness and deception swirl around inside these two people, specifically. Winger and Letts craft two wholly defined, real people, who might be similar in their circumstances, but have completely different reasons for now being stuck in them. The two performers and their writer/director have such a sense of generosity in their fascination with these characters. In every gesture, every tiny look, every missed connection, an intricately and lovingly detailed portrait of these two supremely dissatisfied souls unfurls.
However, this isn’t necessarily entirely to the film’s benefit. While these are some very impressive performances, the film never really shakes the feeling of a really well-produced and documented acting exercise. While removing the more arching or scandalous possibilities from the equation, Jacobs throws the baby out with the bathwater, and any sense of dramatic stakes or narrative propulsion completely dissipates as the film goes on. While it’s never boring, it does feel like that acting exercise was at its most interesting for the filmmakers in the lead-up to the film’s inciting incident, as we spend an unnecessarily lengthy amount of time getting to the point where anything in the plot actually begins to happen – and then when it does, the film quickly runs out of steam and begins barrelling toward an ending that almost feels far more reverse-engineered than it does earned.
In every gesture, every tiny look, every missed connection, an intricately and lovingly detailed portrait of these two supremely dissatisfied souls unfurls.
It’s an odd balance the film strikes. At no point is it unenjoyable to watch or interminable in its construction, but its amiable lack of interest in anything outside of its two lead performances becomes frustrating as it continues. Gillen and Walters feel particularly hard-done by, as each is given only the one note to play, leaving them interchangeable in their neediness and repetitive in their declarations and desires. The frank examination of middle-aged carnality is excitingly fresh, and the lead performances are so richly textured in their subdued dynamics, yet the film never really rises to their level. They may be beautifully drawn portraits, but it feels like they’re being drawn on tracing paper – finely detailed etchings on weightless and translucent material.