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The Lovers asks a loaded question: what if you cheat on your affair with your spouse?

Tracy Letts and Debra Winger play a couple who just aren’t cut out for monogamy.

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in The Lovers
Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in The Lovers
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

When people say “they don’t make movies like they used to anymore,” what they mean is they don’t make movies like The Lovers anymore.

Somewhere between a divorce comedy, a wistful meditation on the nature of long-term love, and a winking adultery apologetic, The Lovers casts a longing glance over its shoulder at an older cinematic era while also remaining solidly rooted in the present. And like its protagonists, it revels in its double life.

Long-term committed relationships lend themselves to both comedy and a particular kind of tragedy. As time goes on, people change, and the incongruity makes for humor and, sometimes, frustration. The Lovers installs a middle-aged couple who’ve been married for a couple of decades in a contrived but believable premise, winds it up, and then lets us watch how the comedy and tragedy will all play out.

The Lovers asks a loaded question: What if you cheat on your secret lover with your spouse?

The middle-aged couple in question are Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), who live in a nice home in California in the manner of cordial roommates who happen to share a bed. They are both also engaged in passionate extramarital affairs: Michael with Lucy (Melora Walters), a petulant ballet teacher, and Mary with Robert (Aidan Gillen), a slightly grandiose but affectionate writer.

From the start, we’re made to understand that both of these affairs have progressed along a similar timeline; both have reached the point where either the affairs need to be broken off, or Michael and Mary need to break off their marriage.

Tracy Letts and Melora Walters in The Lovers
Tracy Letts and Melora Walters in The Lovers.

Neither Michael nor Mary has disclosed their affair to their spouse, but they seem to have reached a kind of tacit détente, a cessation of hostilities that implies both vaguely know what’s going on. They interact cordially, and they conduct their affairs with a measure of secrecy, but neither are under any delusions about the state of their relationship. It’s been over, it seems, for a long time.

When Michael and Mary’s son calls to say he’ll be coming home for a weekend with his girlfriend, both tell their paramours — who are getting frustrated with the secrecy — that they’ll leave the marriage after one last weekend as a family. But then, something weird happens. One morning, Michael and Mary wake up face to face, and kiss. And then more.

What if you’re cheating on your affair with your spouse? It’s almost too manufactured of a premise, but writer/director Azazel Jacobs pulls it off with a sweetness that doesn’t sacrifice the seriousness of its predicament. The contrast between the settledness, and sometimes the bitterness, that can characterize a long-running marriage and the excitement of a new and secret liaison is familiar territory for movies. But the joke in The Lovers is the swap: The spouse becomes the secret lover.

The Lovers is cynical and sentimental about love at the same time

Shot in muted tones and at a languorous pace, The Lovers feels like a callback to Hollywood’s Golden Age, especially because it’s set against a lush, mostly orchestral score that feels delightfully anachronistic paired with the film’s cell phones and smart cars. Something about the sharp situational humor and arch flirtation seems lifted from some much older film.

But it’s the chemistry between Winger and Letts that makes the whole thing sing. Their characters have to fall hard for each other, like teenagers, while simultaneously embodying the knowing familiarity that comes with sleeping next to someone for decades. It’s a tricky kind of chemistry to conjure up on screen, but a scene in which Michael and Mary tenuously flirt with each other via text message, and then phone about Chinese food (but not about Chinese food, if you know what I mean), is a perfect little bit of theater.

Debra Winger and Aidan Gillen in The Lovers
Debra Winger and Aidan Gillen in The Lovers.

Actually, the whole film feels like it combines what theater does best — study the interactions between humans through what they say, and what they don’t say — with the great benefit of movies: the ability to get up close to actors, to let the audience see their faces. A film about secrets naturally is full of doublespeak dialogue, where people say one thing but actually mean something else. Winger and Letts clue us into their characters’ subtly changing emotional states just through how they look at each other, or chuckle at their phone, or stare into the middle distance.

Never succumbing to clichés, The Lovers is funny and surprising, and even when it's painful, it feels like a keen observation of what long-term love can look like.

It is, however, impossible to ignore the fact that it’s a movie about adultery — and about a couple of unrepentantly unfaithful people who can afford the risk without too much potential harm to themselves. The movie’s stance, at least in the case of Michael and Mary, is that some people just get too bored to stick with one relationship, and sneaking around keeps them alive.

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in The Lovers
Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in The Lovers.

True or not, that’s a bit of a queasy conclusion, and a pretty cynical one, too: relationships as distraction from… what? Loneliness? Self-examination? Existential ennui? It’s not totally clear if The Lovers knows how depressing it is; maybe it’s more self-aware than it appears, or maybe it’s just both sentimental and pessimistic about the possibilities of monogamy.

Yet the film is crafted carefully enough that it’s mostly pleasure the whole way through, and might be, if not forgiven, at least given a pass on its strangely negative, narcissistic outlook, because it also still somehow believes in love. The Lovers is about people who have set for themselves a kind of perpetual Sisyphean tragedy of romance, always doomed to get crushed by the rock they’ve just rolled up the mountain. They know it, too. And that is, in the end, kind of funny.

The Lovers opens in theaters on May 5.

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