Tribeca 2017: In ‘The Lovers,’ Marriage Can Be Cheating

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play an estranged married couple, Mary and Michael, in Azazel Jacobs’ new film, “The Lovers.” The film depicts the complications of love and marriage through comedy and realistically flawed characters.

Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this past weekend, opens with two sets of lovers, neither of whom appear to be having the best of times. Michael (Tracy Letts) attempts to comfort an inextricably distraught Lucy (Melora Walters), while Robert (Aidan Gillen) fitfully expresses his love to a less than ecstatic Mary (Debra Winger). The only extra kink is that Michael and Mary are actually married.

Their incredibly stale, suburban marriage takes center stage, as the two separately and unknowingly deal with their affairs, assuring their respective mister and mistress that they will soon get a divorce. “The Lovers” takes a curious and remarkably amusing turn when Michael and Mary sleepily kiss each other one morning, leading to a rekindling of their marriage that’s treated like cheating to their actual cheating.

What makes the amoral plot of “The Lovers” work is its two lead performances from Letts — likely best known for winning a Pulitzer for “August Osage County” — and Winger. The two offer a wry and tired withdrawal from their situations, so that their dubious actions never contain an emotionally hurtful punch. Instead, their scenes are outlandish yet sympathetically comical, like when Michael avoids a phone call with Lucy by voicing aloud a fake reunion with his friend Ben as the camera continuously insists on showing how he’s alone in a parking lot.

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Letts and Winger utilize this withdrawal for fantastic effect when they begin to rediscover their passion, reacting with a wide-eyed shock to their first kiss so as to comically contrast their normally banal and sparse relationship. The film’s ingenious conceit gives plenty more material for this sudden and bewildering fervor, notably when their college-aged son Joel (Tyler Ross) discovers his parents lovingly kissing in the kitchen, acting as horrified as if he had just seen either one of them with another person.

The film’s plot and the acting can only carry “The Lovers” so far, as Azazel’s excruciatingly sparse dialogue leaves much to be desired. At first it’s a point of comedy, to illustrate the depths to which Michael and Mary’s marriage has fallen, yet it ultimately becomes clear that almost every character exchanges little to no information with one another. Conversations come off more as exchanges of statements than anything that’s back and forth. Upon realizing the utter lack of speaking in the film, it becomes apparent how much silence there is, which is often — and annoyingly — filled with overdone orchestral music. This results in characters whom the viewer knows next to nothing about, stripping the film of any emotional attachment outside what the actors can muster.

Much should be said again for what Letts and Winger can muster. The same goes for Gillen, who most will recognize for playing Littlefinger on “Game of Thrones.” Here, he offers a far more heartfelt and pitiful man, yet little is known about his character to offer any insight or interest.

Matters are only made worse by the film’s final act, in which the awkward comedy is supposed to reach its head. The emotional tenor is far more serious than anything that comes before so that it comes off as melodrama. Michael and Mary’s seemingly emotionally damaged son returns home and confronts his parents about their cheating ways, yet his furious anger is like whiplash. Nothing in the film matches the seriousness of the situation, nor do Michael or Mary’s actions seem strong enough to have produced such an infuriated child.

“The Lovers” isn’t fully damned by its faults, which is fitting as neither are its characters. Its goofy, predictable ending is so in line with the film’s inverted ingenuity that it is likely to put a smile on many viewers’ faces, proving that at times cheating can be a laughing matter.

“The Lovers” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival April 22 and has two more screening on Thursday, April 27 and Friday, April 28 at Cinepolis Chelsea at 260 W. 23rd St.

Email Ethan Sapienza at [email protected]

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