As I prepare my list of favorite Chicago releases of 2017, I’ve been looking at lists that other critics have started posting online. I’ve yet to find one that mentions Azazel Jacobs’s The Lovers, which was one of the highlights of my moviegoing year. (If you missed the film in theaters, it’s now available on DVD.) The Lovers exudes generosity and a delight in filmmaking in every scene—watching it just makes me feel good. Perhaps the film’s modesty has kept it off year-end lists. The Lovers doesn’t appear to be more than a relaxed character comedy about bland middle-class people, and the banal settings (suburban townhomes and office buildings) add to its unassuming veneer. Yet the movie conjures a certain wonderment regardless, depicting the transformative power of romantic love with a fittingly romantic style.
In his previous features Momma’s Man and Terri, Jacobs crafted a precise mood (whimsical, wistful) to make banal settings seem alive with possibility. In The Lovers, that mood overwhelms the film entirely. The main characters change their natures seemingly at a whim. These changes feel supernatural, thanks to Jacobs; triumphant lead performances by Debra Winger and Tracy Letts; and a lush, old-fashioned score by Mandy Hoffman. It’s as though Mary (Winger) and Michael (Letts) fall under a magic spell, rediscovering passion for each other they didn’t realize they still had. The Lovers feels like a fantasy, in spite of its dull suburban locations.
At the outset, Michael and Mary are involved with other people, despite being married to each other. Both have kept their infidelity a secret from the other, but each assumes that the other wouldn’t care if he or she found out—the marriage ran its course so long ago that Michael and Mary now live together with bored indifference. Ironically, the spouses still have a lot in common. They’re attracted to similar people (Michael is seeing a dancer, Mary is involved with a writer), work similar bureaucratic jobs, and make up similar excuses to put off ending the marriage. Jacobs’s script is filled with charming parallels, yet his direction is rooted in lovely and curvilinear camera movements that complicate the geometric pattern of the characterizations. The stylistic flourishes suggest the mysterious workings of fate, which will come to take Michael and Mary by surprise.
One day the couple arranges a visit with their grown son Joel—each one decides independently that during the visit he or she will admit to being unfaithful and declare he or she wants out of the marriage. Michael and Mary start to spend more time together as they prepare for their son’s arrival, and as they do, they realize they’re still attracted to each other. With youthful recklessness, they embark on something like an affair, evading their respective lovers to meet for trysts in their own home. The rekindled romance makes them both feel young again, with Michael and Mary displaying a dreaminess one associates with young love. Winger and Letts are marvelous—they seem to transform over the course of the film. (At times The Lovers suggests an update on Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business, a 1952 comedy about middle-aged spouses who unwittingly drink a fountain-of-youth serum.)
The other characters in The Lovers are just as interesting as Michael and Mary. Jacobs realizes them sympathetically and with the same comic imagination he brings to the leads. Mary’s lover, Robert (Aidan Gillen) is tender but impatient; he wants Mary all to himself. In this regard he’s a lot like Michael’s lover, Lucy (Melora Walters), but Jacobs isn’t so schematic in how he paints these two characters. Lucy is more spontaneous than Robert, and she seems to have a better sense of humor. Yet both come across as well-rounded adults who’ve figured out how to balance their creative aspirations with their normal lives. Joel (Tyler Ross) is mature in certain ways too. When Jacobs introduces him, he’s displaying tenderness toward his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula); he seems to delight in having a warmer relationship than what he thinks his parents have.
There’s a wonderful scene in the film’s second half when Michael opens up to Erin about his young adulthood while Joel and Mary are running errands. He admits he didn’t go to college and pursued a career in music instead. But those times are “far away.” He hasn’t even touched the family piano in years. Letts hints at buried self-loathing, but also a certain fondness for his youth—there’s an emotional complexity to his monologue that few movies I saw in 2017 attained. The revelation of this scene inflects the remainder of The Lovers, which sustains a poignant tone that makes me choke up every time I watch it. Michael and Mary both realize they can’t sustain their recaptured youth, yet they feel grateful that they got to recapture it at all. That fleeting, romantic pleasure—much like that conjured by The Lovers—has left them a little more self-aware, a little wiser.