“The Lovers” is that rare thing: a serious romantic comedy with farcical elements that never puts a foot wrong. Writer-director Azazel Jacobs (“Terri”) seems to know that there is no margin for error with this kind of project, and so he plans out his comedic scenes with both precision and sophistication.
He takes a real chance by allowing musician Mandy Hoffman to create the kind of full-blown and near-constant score with violins that hasn’t been heard much since at least the early 1990s, and this music really buoys the scenes up and makes them sparkle.
Since “The Lovers” is a comedy of marriage or re-marriage, the casting of actors who have chemistry with each other is key, and Jacobs has put together an ideal quartet here. Tracy Letts and Debra Winger play Michael and Mary, a long-married couple who have been seriously seeing other people for quite a while.
Letts’ Michael has been having an affair with the sexy and emotionally volatile Lucy (Melora Walters) while Mary has been seeing the very sexy and charming Robert (Aidan Gillen). Both Lucy and Robert have given them an ultimatum: they need to break up their stagnant marriage after their son Joel (Tyler Ross) comes to visit.
One night Mary sneaks in from seeing Robert, and Hoffman actually uses a harp on the soundtrack when Mary slowly creeps her way into bed. (When is the last time you heard a harp in a movie score?) Michael and Mary are facing each other in bed when morning breaks. They kiss each other before they are quite awake, and when they realize what they have done they both freak out a little. But this kiss causes a believable chain reaction of fond feelings that begin to re-emerge inside both of them.
The scenes where Michael and Mary begin to really see each other again are crucial to “The Lovers,” and a lot depends on the interactions between Letts and Winger, both of whom have a cranky, no-nonsense sort of charisma that matches up ideally. There comes a point when Michael gets out of the shower with a towel around his waist and sits next to Mary on their bed. Jacobs keeps Michael in focus in the foreground and Mary slightly out of focus in the background, but then as their love and lust for each other begins to germinate, Jacobs brings Mary into focus.
Jacobs carefully directs this key scene for us, but he also really relies on Letts, who, at one point, looks at Winger with eyes that are extremely direct and challenging and carnal, the eyes of a sexually hungry teenager rather than a middle-aged man with his wife. Winger, in turn, slowly blooms for Letts, and this scene ends with one of her legs caressing his legs on the bed. A very erotic image.
Inevitably, Michael and Mary start giving excuses to their lovers and sneaking in marathon lovemaking sessions with each other, which Jacobs shows us somewhat explicitly but tastefully. There is a scene where Michael is going down on Mary where Winger abandons herself sexually in a way that calls back memories of the opening of “Mike’s Murder,” one of her finest films from the 1980s. This is probably the best role that Winger has had since the mid-1990s, and it’s great to see her so fully engaged again on screen.
“The Lovers” has a classical kind of comic symmetry, with details like Mary always lightly bumping into a plant where she works until the plot resolves to her satisfaction, at which point she carefully avoids that plant because her life is finally in order. The solution to the problem that Michael and Mary have only seems obvious after they have made their decision, and this is a film that develops in a pleasingly unconventional way. It’s also a film that isn’t afraid to move into some rather heavy dramatic scenes toward the end without unbalancing the expert sex-farce sections that have come before.
“The Lovers” is a delightful movie in which dormant passions convincingly come back to life, and where the secrecy of having a lover is seen to be life-enhancing rather than life- and love-destroying. This film is a real pleasure and surprise because it sees old emotions as things that can be replenished and renewed if you are open and not too rigid about the boundaries of your relationships with others.