The Lovers, a dramedy if there ever was one that deserved that definition, starts with two couples meeting and gazing lovingly at each other. The score is pure 1940s charm, the couples include some very charismatic human beings (Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aidan Quinlan and Melora Walters). The urgency and emotion in their meeting is palpable.
But then, the movie throws us its first curve ball. What we saw wasn’t just any people in love meeting, it was a married couple (Winger and Letts) meeting their respective lovers. Both of them have been promising their other man/woman that they will leave their spouse, and as we meet them, the date is set: it will happen right after their son is done visiting from college for a weekend. The film then follows the journey to that weekend, a topsy turvy ride of emotions and expectations. Of course, there are some pretty high emotional stakes, poker faces, and interactions. When it works, it really works. When it doesn’t, it is frustrating. Sort of like love and marriage are, I guess.
I had a chance to chat with writer/director Azalel Jacobs and leading man Tracy Letts about the film and how the idea for it came to be. “I just wrote ‘A Married Couple who cheats on their lovers with each other’ on a sheet of paper and it went from there,” said Jacobs. That, and a chance encounter with Debra Winger who approached him after seeing his movie Terri (“That’s a letter you frame”, says Jacobs”). While they exchanged ideas over the years, nothing really stuck till this one. So he wrote Mary with her in mind, and the rest of the cast fell in place over time. “We got very lucky with this group”, he says, and seeing the movie, one has to agree. There is a scene where Mary and Michael, after spending the earlier parts of the evening with their lovers, sit down to watch TV and have a glass of wine. They are comfortable with each other, but it is also one of the more heartbreaking parts of the film, with almost no words exchanged in the process.
In the hands of lesser leads something like this wouldn’t work. But the ease with which Letts and Winger work as actors – both of whom should be in more films – deal with the awkwardness of the situation is applause-worthy. And the chemistry flip flops between the four leads keep the viewer unsettled, even during the genuinely funny parts.
The tempo of the film is partially responsible for this. “I listen to a lot of music when I write”, said Jacobs, “and a lot of it is reggae, which may explain why things happen sort of slower in my movies than in some others.” The leisurely pace of dealing with non-leisurely things is definitely amplified by the actual up-tempo sweeping score that is reminiscent of Old Hollywood, but often misleading when it comes to what is actually happening.
It is a small film, but with enough momentum to make an impac.
I aked both Lets and Jacobs about their hopes for the movie, and they both Letts and Jacobs said that they hope enough people see it that these kind of stories, these offbeat romances, can be found more in the cinemas these days. “Nothing is over yet in middle age,” says Letts, “There is still so much to do, so many stories to tell”.
As the movie winds down its self-destructive path (are these people hooked on love or just sneaking around, we have to ask?), it ends in a twist that Jacobs felt was necessary, even if it does send the viewer in a yet another tailspin. “I don’t think it could have ended any other way”.
What is it? That’ll be the price of one ticket.