An unhappily married couple finally decides to end things for good, only to find themselves unexpectedly falling back in love in "The Lovers," Azazel Jacobs' wry grownup romance about love, sex, and the difficulties of finding happiness at any age.
Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) seem to have checked out of their marriage ages ago. Each are embroiled in adulterous long-term affairs: Michael is seeing Lucy (Melora Walters), a passionate but volatile ballet instructor, while Mary has fallen for Robert (Aidan Gillen), a frustrated writer. Both promise their partners that they'll break the news to their spouses soon, at which point they'll be free to begin their lives together. Michael and Mary's college-aged son, Joel (Tyler Ross), is coming home with his girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula), and their visit serves as a deadline, one last moment for them to be a family before breaking off into those new, separate lives.
There's plenty of potential for this material to feel heavy, but Jacobs keeps things refreshingly buoyant and fleet-footed. It helps that the filmmaker avoids taking sides, never getting bogged down with extraneous exposition and backstory. We see enough to understand: unfulfilling jobs and a marriage that long ago entered a sort of stasis. Even when Mary and Michael are both at home, they may be occupying the same space, but they're never really together.
As you might expect, much of the film's success hinges on its two leads, and Tracy Letts and Debra Winger are marvelous as two people who -- even late into their 50's -- are unable to determine what exactly it is that they want. Perpetually frustrated, Mary and Michael's faces are road maps that seem to trace a lifetime of regret and compromised choices. But as they rediscover each other anew, they recapture a bit of the joy that went missing all those years ago. Consistently, the film defies our expectations about how this type of story should play out: suddenly the couple is sneaking around behind their lovers' backs, planning clandestine meetings in the home they've shared for decades.
Setting the mood is a lovely orchestral score by Mandy Hoffman. The swooningly romantic music at first appears to act as ironic counterpoint to the action unfolding on screen, but as the plot develops, it blossoms into the film's true heart, expressing the longings these characters can never quite put into words.