Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) are married. She has something going on the sly with an Irish novelist (Aidan Gillen); he’s been sneaking around with a high-strung ballet teacher (Melora Walters). Both are counting the days until they can dissolve the union and move in with their new partners. Then, on the brink of separation, Mary and Michael decide they still turn each other on – and start cheating on their side dishes with each other.
That, in a tweet and a half, is the plot of The Lovers, a meandering but altogether mesmerizing film from writer-director Azazel Jacobs that finds buoyant comedy and touching gravity in the ashes of a relationship. I don’t know how Jacobs does it. His film is modest, even drab in look and manner. At home, in Santa Clarita, California, Mary and Michael go about their business barely looking at each other. And when the couple’s college-age son Joel (Tyler Ross) enters the film late in the game to heat up the plot, you fear the material might degenerate into sitcom or some Nancy Myers-ish fussiness. No worries. Give your trust to Jacobs (Momma’s Man, Terri), a filmmaker who prizes the eccentricities of character above all things and never cheats for a laugh or a quick fix.
Above all, give yourself over Winger and Letts. It’s deeply satisfying to see the Urban Cowboy actress back on screen with such rich material. And Letts, a Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright (August: Osage County), is also an actor of rare wit and conviction. Don’t deny yourself the pleasure of their company. In Winger, a dynamo in restraint, and Letts, simmering with unexpressed feelings, Jacobs has found just the right actors to find the chaos and regret of real life. They are perfection, and you can’t take your eyes off them. That’s really all you need to know.