Friday, May 19, 2017

The Lovers: Not quite together

The Lovers (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang

Quite a few sharply perceptive observations about human nature are contained within this modest dramedy from writer/director Azazel Jacobs, which manages to be droll and forlorn in equal measure.

Too bad it’s so s-l-o-w.

At home, although relieved to be away from their respective lovers, Mary (Debra Winger)
and Michael (Tracy Letts) lack the energy — or willingness — to engage with each other.
The film opens cleverly, as Michael (Tracy Letts) has what we immediately sense is another in a symphony of tiffs with his hot-tempered lover, Lucy (Melora Walters); elsewhere, Mary (Debra Winger) works hard to allay the bubbling insecurity that afflicts her lover, Robert (Aidan Gillen). One scene later, Michael and Mary slide silently — resignedly — into bed next to each other, and we abruptly realize that they’re the married couple in this roundelay.

This scenario’s arch humor derives from the resignation with which Michael and Mary are conducting their lives, and our certainty that they’ve been doing so for years. We assume that this ennui results from their disenchantment with each other, but that’s not quite right.

No, it’s the exhaustion that results from maintaining the marital charade while essentially leading double lives elsewhere, and the utter chaos into which their lives have been plunged: friends long abandoned; lunches with co-workers forever put off; unpersuasive lies fabricated clumsily; extended work hours, just to keep up, due to the time-consuming nooners and afternoon assignations. It’s all exhausting.

And apparently not much fun. It would seem that one of the reasons to have an affair would be the excitement and novelty of the new: the enthusiasm with which the lover is greeted each day. But if that ever motivated Michael and/or Mary, it’s long past.

Michael has Lucy tagged as “Work” on his smart phone, and we get the joke: It’s not merely to conceal her identity from his wife, but a sly reference to the fact that this extra-marital relationship is work. A lot of work. It seems understandable self-defense when he lies to get out of an evening with the woman about whom he constantly lies to his wife.

Mary, if asked, undoubtedly would admit to being equally frustrated.

We can’t even be certain that Mary suspects Michael of having an affair, because she’s so wrapped up in her own ... and vice versa. They’re civil to each other at home — exchanging platitudes, smiling when appropriate, sharing the occasional meal (generally breakfast) — but utterly oblivious to joy, sorrow or any other emotional response.

At the same time, Letts and Winger manifest the behavior and “presence” of two people who’ve been together for a long time: the casual, rumpled manner in which they amble about each other. Jacobs and his two stars really nail that interpersonal atmosphere of familiarity, inserting little intimacies that occasionally make us viewers feel like embarrassed voyeurs.

All of which makes this set-up sound depressing on paper, and some (many?) viewers undoubtedly will view it that way. But we also can’t help chuckling at the foolishness with which Michael and Mary continue to make such a mess of their lives. On top of which, both actors make this pathetic gloom ... well ... undeniably funny. Very funny, at times.

The film’s droll tone is amplified further by Mandy Hoffman’s bold, classical-oriented score, rich with strings and woodwinds. It gives these events the lush, breathlessly overstated atmosphere of a 1950s melodrama.

The perpetually woebegone Letts, his face framed behind protective glasses, makes Michael the pluperfect sad sack, hilarious in his long-suffering helplessness. He’s the personification of Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown as an adult, the poor guy’s insecurities having magnified exponentially along the way. Letts’ face betrays all of Michael’s missed opportunities, each one having left a throbbing invisible scar.

Winger mines humor from Mary’s blank stoicism, as if years ago this woman parked her emotions in the kitchen utility drawer, and now can’t find them. She wanders in a perpetual daze, always seeing or hearing something a beat late, and then responding even later.

Unfortunately, Jacobs didn’t exercise similar care with Lucy and Robert. Both are artists, and we wonder about this coincidence; she’s a dancer, and he’s a frustrated writer.

But Walters’ performance is strictly one-dimensional, her Lucy a grasping shrike so prone to hot-tempered fury that it’s impossible to imagine Michael tolerating such behavior even once, let alone for God knows how long. Gillen — who seems to be everywhere these days — fares a bit better, giving Robert a bit of depth, but he still looks and sounds like a petulant whiner. Why does Mary waste time stroking his ego? What does he give her?

It’s possible to feel sorry for Robert. Maybe. A bit. No so Lucy; she’s full-tilt obnoxious, all the time.

Their respective neuroses — the “work” they represent, as paramours — perhaps explains the unexpected frisson that erupts between Michael and Mary, having overslept one morning. The shared glance, with neither — to the surprise of both — looking away. The sudden heat and tension in the quiet room. Then ... surrender.

And, just like that, Michael and Mary find themselves concocting fresh stories to put off their respective lovers, so they can have an “affair” with each other.

That’s definitely amusing, and the film might have remained that way, had the narrative confined itself to this complicated quartet. But Jacobs further spices this combustible brew with a weekend visit from Michael and Mary’s collegiate son Joel (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula).

Joel, long disgusted with his parents’ marital hypocrisy, has all but estranged himself. Not knowing any better, he also solely blames his father for being the sole “cheat.”

Unfortunately, the arrival of these two young people brings genuine pain to the scenario, which abruptly ceases to be amusing in any manner. The disconnect is palpable, and it ruins the film. Ross plays his role too well; Joel obviously exists in perpetual agony, unable to bond with the two people he should love the most.

In the midst of all this angst, Sula is a breath of fresh air as the warm and caring Erin: the one truly healthy person in this collection of damaged souls. Sula and Letts share a genuinely touching scene, when Erin and Michael are the only two at breakfast one morning. Again, Jacobs clearly has an ear for the way people react with — and relate to — each other.

But that doesn’t help. Joel’s anguish — which we can understand all too well — overpowers everything that follows. The film never recovers, despite the amusing irony of the “resolution” that Jacobs gives his story.

On top of which, the film’s 94 minutes don’t pass quickly. There’s a lot of protracted silence here, and some of the long takes are very long. Yes, Letts and Winger are compelling, even when quiet, but the lethargic pacing becomes an issue.

Ultimately, despite its positive qualities, Jacobs’ film feels like a stage play that should have been tightened during out-of-town tryouts, before being unveiled for paying customers. And I can’t imagine it making any money, as we slide into the tsunami of summer releases.

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