The course of true love never did run smooth, especially when your 30-year marriage is on the rocks and rising tensions have led both of you to extramarital affairs. For proof, see “The Lovers,” an acrid satire about marital resignation, desperation and boredom in late middle age.
The chemistry of romance between Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (celebrated playwright Tracy Letts) lost its fizz long ago. The tone is set from the opening moments, as the scheming couple deal separately with their hush-hush partners on the side, then with each other.
What conversations they have under their shared roof are tepid exchanges about whether it’s time to buy more toothpaste. What has drawn them into their clandestine relationships off-site isn’t primarily sexual or romantic. It’s not even the transgressive thrill of forbidden temptation.
It’s the desire to get out of the house for a few hours under whatever excuse they can brainstorm.
Writer/director Azazel Jacobs sets up a moody sensibility. He chooses things carefully. From the bland beige emptiness of the home and look-alike work offices that his characters occupy to the smoothly composed serenading-strings soundtrack to the inspired casting, he keeps the laughs from feeling cheap.
Letts is beefy, balding and a bit gross, so the sympathy goes to Winger, who retains a touch of her ’80s ingénue appeal. But she is as duplicitous and self-centered as he is, equally willing to run away from inconvenient facts. Watching the pair cheat, lie and take embarrassing moral pratfalls side by side in this comedy of misbehavior, you realize that they belong together.
Mary and Michael are filling the days before the home visit of their college-age son in parallel negotiations with their attention-hungry paramours. The married ones envy the free spirits, and vice versa.
Lucy (Melora Walters), a lively but edgy ballet instructor, wants Michael to live up to his promise and tell Mary that they are done. Mary’s flame, a marginal writer named Robert (Aiden Gillen), wants the same.
No one is truly anyone else’s significant other. Yet independently, Michael and Mary promise that once their son (Tyler Ross) heads back to campus, each lover will get what’s due.
Instead, thanks to poetic justice, everyone gets what they deserve, which is hardly what they desire — including the long estranged couple possibly getting their raunchy mojo back. When the pair share a phone call where background noises make it clear that neither of them is where they earlier claimed, they’re shocked at the subterfuge. Then their sheer daring triggers mutual admiration.
“The Lovers” comes out of a different movie culture than genre-addicted audiences expect now. It’s a sophisticated tour of the hellish difficulties of marriage, and it expects viewers to filter it through their own awareness of the situation. It’s a throwback to movies about problems that create personal complications, not explosions.
While “The Lovers” runs a bit overlong in the final stretch, it’s solid, clever work from all. It’s the kind of thinking person’s relationship comedy that you don’t exactly laugh at but admire for its brutal honesty.
★★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for sexuality and language.