** (out of 4)
The initial premise of Azawal Jacobs’ The Lovers is that the two protagonists, a married couple named Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), dislike each other so much that they’ve each resorted to cheating on the other. If you were just going by the opening scenes, however, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that either of them really enjoys being adulterous. On Michael’s side, after all, the movie gives us an image of his girlfriend Lucy (Melora Walters) wailing inconsolably, all while he resignedly leans his head against a wall in the background. And on Mary’s side, we watch as she gives her boyfriend Robert (Aidan Gillen) an awkward, somewhat exasperated embrace outside her workplace. Add the fact that these scenes are filmed with meditative long takes, and you have all the makings of a reincarnation of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura: a story where everyone wants love but never succeeds in getting it.
First impressions, however, can deceive, and the turn the story subsequently takes shows why. Michael and Mary awaken in bed on what seems like another ordinary morning…but in a moment that could have been taken from a 30s screwball comedy, they suddenly realize they’re still very much attracted to one another. This transition between Antonioni and rom-com could’ve been rough, but Jacobs manages to smoothen it out with some careful camerawork: in the crucial seconds preceding their re-attainment of intimacy, the camera, which has up to then shot them in such a way that they’re often in the same frame but never in the same plane, finally gives an image of the two directly staring each other in the eye. It’s perhaps a tiny detail, but when you combine it with the aptly clumsy way in which Winger and Letts play the moment out, you find yourself heading into the new storyline with eager expectations for a sizzling treat.
Sadly, such expectations only leave you more disappointed by the tedium that comes to define every second of the movie’s latter half. The story itself moves past Antonioni, but Jacobs kills its momentum by adamantly refusing to abandon the Antonioni-esque shooting/editing style he flaunts at the start. His insistence on retaining such a dragging approach is so firmly entrenched, in fact, that it even rubs off on the actors: when they’re not being funny, Letts and Winger recite their lines with an unnatural slowness that makes them sound as though they’re in a stage production. Glenn Kenny of RogerEbert.com has suggested that this slow pacing is simply meant to convey “a listlessness that is likely not uncommon to suburban life in southern California,” and that certainly could be the case. But aside from bogging the story down, such an approach puts distance between us and the characters – the exact opposite of what you’d want from a movie that supposedly celebrates rediscovered love.
On second thought, let me take that last statement back. Saying that this movie is a celebration of love would be a stretch, because another big problem with it is the inconsistent attitude it adopts towards human relationships. Jacobs, after all, conspicuously refuses to tell us exactly why Michael and Mary have fallen apart over the years – as if to make some symbolic statement on the inevitable vacuity of long-term partnerships. And Michael and Mary’s sudden restart is never shown to entail anything beyond lots and lots of passionate sex, as though emotional connections matter less than a good turn-on. Jacobs has claimed that he sought to tell a story in which “romance…win[s] in the end,” but the simplistic cynicism driving each of these big narrative decisions all but undermines whatever love-affirming intentions he may have. (If you’re thinking Jacobs might just want to highlight the deficiencies of marriage as a relationship framework, you’re wrong: given how clingy and whiny Lucy and Robert are, you never get the sense that having an extramarital relationship is anything but unending pain.)
Then there are the issues with the movie’s treatment of its young characters. Some time after their initial reconciliation, Mary and Michael are paid a visit by their college-age son Joel (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula). In a classic broken-marriage work like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the visit of such a young couple served to expose the holes lying beneath even the most seemingly pure idealism. Here, however, Joel and Erin do little except dish out the most ludicrously melodramatic moments of the entire story – and in the process, they’re portrayed as a perfect, all-smiles couple that never goes beyond the occasional hug, a stark divergence from the way Mary and Michael are regularly shown engaging in crude, intense intercourse. Jacobs may simply view Joel and Erin as a means of bringing out the bleak desperation of middle age through contrast. But aside from contradicting his aforementioned lovemaking-is-gold view of romance, his admiring conception of youthful love as a condition of quasi-Platonic purity will confuse anyone who’s ever been anywhere near a college campus.
Some of the most frustrating movies to watch are those in which the director clearly has talent but doesn’t seem to know how to harness it to make a good final product. Unfortunately, The Lovers is one of them. Jacobs, as mentioned, can bring out some wonderful reactions from his actors, and he certainly knows how to create an atmosphere of ennui better than many. Yet when you finish this and realize that you’ve laughed far less often (and cringed far more) than you expected from just the trailer, you can’t help but feel that Jacobs’ style and ideas are better suited for a different kind of story. When a movie is such a plodding, self-contradictory muddle, the impression it leaves in your mind is about as underwhelming as it gets.
The Lovers (2017)
Starring: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Melora Walters, Aidan Gillen, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula
Running Time: 94 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for sexuality and language.”
Produced by: Ben LeClair, Chris Stinson
Written and Directed by: Azazel Jacobs