Originally posted May 30th, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com
We went into some detail last Tuesday about how complicated relationships can be with The Little Death, and though the standard romantic comedy may elicit the same message from a surface perspective, the ultimate conclusion from the lot of them is that finding romance is simple if you adhere to a strict set of rules. Just as a suggestion, ScreenPrism is a fantastic YouTube channel dedicated to film and television analysis, and their somewhat recent video “Rom Cons: Problematic Movie Romance Lessons” is an entertaining watch in this regard.
Though most romantic comedies focus on the troubles of young(er) love between two objectively attractive 20 or 30-somethings, every now and then we see a similar film dedicated to middle-aged protagonists, often about married couples whose love is fading, and at least one of the two engaged in an affair. These pictures’ norms and formula may slightly differ from the average romantic comedy, but actually boil down to the exact same conclusion mentioned previously.
Azazel Jacobs’s new film The Lovers, on the other hand, enters the fray openly boasting about its differences and refreshing takes on genre tropes, and though it’s a stance to enjoy a little less than comfortably, it will continue to remind you of its supposed singularity. Dead-eyed long-time married couple Mary and Michael, played respectively by Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, are having a difficult time telling each other about their own affairs, only to unexpectedly find themselves in a passionate tryst with each other, of all people. Pressure mounts when their lovers issue them an ultimatum on coming clean to the other – easier said than done when their son comes home to visit with his new girlfriend.
If it’s the rom-com’s mutually exclusive whimsy and convention you’re looking for, you’ll be hard-pressed finding any here. From the first frame, Jacobs creates a bitter landscape of chronic deceit and misdirection on the part our two leads, who seem just as trapped in their affairs as they might in their own marriage. Normal romantic comedies about infidelity’s diminishing returns might feature a similar moral code, but Jacobs takes that premise and stretches it out to feature length, making its brand more caustic than the average flick.
The script’s intriguing structure contributes to that approach, as well. Jacobs’s own spinning on love travels back and forth between Mary and Michael’s downward spiraling affairs, creating mirror-image parallels that emphasize the mundanity and cyclical nature they sought to escape in the first place. Turning the tables on the genre cliché of one protagonist seeing a younger, more attractive lover compared to their betrothed, both are seeing similarly middle-aged creative types equally in a career or emotional rut who seek control in the relationship they feel like they’re losing. Numerous blocking and visual cues signal Mary and Michael’s pathological lying, and the picture’s dragging down into pessimistic tones is often gleefully combated by a swelling, wistful orchestral score.
At a certain point, we wonder whether Mary and Michael finally come together again because the spark’s been reignited or because it’s a last resort for two awful people finding refuge in anything that will make them feel less confined. It’d certainly be another neat twist on the genre in the film’s catalogue of fresh observations, and it’s a facet that would feel at home in material that is constantly aware of itself digging for genre-subverting pay dirt. The film’s acerbic approach often works in its favor, but not only does its relentless self-reflexivity border on irritating at times, one can’t help but wonder how much more effective a movie it could have been had any given moment of biting commentary been replaced by a laugh or two.
Thankfully, there are some genuinely humorous moments here and there scattered throughout Jacobs’s script, which benefit an approach that isn’t aiming for realism and unsavory truths about the effects of time on marriage. Winger and Letts turn in some solid performances, as well, humanizing their respective roles in a way that make them stand out from the screenplay’s sharp tongue, but never fully rescuing them from their comical unpleasantness. Like similar rom-coms, their unfaithfulness isn’t as rewarding as they’d wished, but unlike those films, this isn’t an opportunity for growth, and they’re as untrustworthy as they were when the film began.
What It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia does for the average sitcom, The Lovers does for It’s Complicated, among other films. Jacobs may not treat Mary and Michael’s case as inevitable for all, but he is certainly successful in unflinchingly depicting both as individuals unable to face the harsh reality that the love has died – at least in its current form. The film is entertaining enough on its own terms, and perhaps you should proceed with caution if you’re expecting anything relative to the norm.