Sunday, May 28, 2017

'The Lovers' review

A24 has only been on the Hollywood scene for a few short years, but the distributor has quickly become one of the most popular and critically acclaimed hubs for independent cinema. Moonlight's Best Picture won solidified their position as a Tinseltown power player, while unique gems like The End of the Tour, Green Room, Ex Machina, and Free Fire made me a fan. In a way, A24 has quickly developed a brand similar to Pixar and Marvel, where every film that the studio releases generates a certain audience just by their involvement. It's rare to be a fan of a particular studio, but A24 has proven to be the exception to the rule. In addition to distributing movies that seem like they were made just for me, their seal of approval has led me to check out films that I likely would have missed otherwise, projects that aren't necessarily in my wheelhouse.

This is true for something like The Lovers, the latest film from indie director Azazel Jacobs. A comedy about an aging couple in the midst of two passionate affairs isn't exactly the kind of movie that I would seek out on my own, but thanks to the involvement of the good people at A24, The Lovers became one of the can't miss arthouse flicks of the summer. And ultimately, I'm glad it popped onto my radar- this is a lively, funny film that takes its time and plays with character motivations and situations to great effect. It's clever, deadpan, and maybe even a bit more cynical than it initially appears, which makes it a cut above most of the romantic comedies that Hollywood puts out each year. Jacobs has made a film that is grounded in humanity and absurdity, and while it's a little slight and tiresome at times, it's a nice slice of adult counter-programming for the summer months.

Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) have been married for a very long time, and they're finally starting to get bored. They seem to have nothing to say to each other anymore, and their life is an endless cycle of suburban routines that have grown tedious. And for that reason, they're both having affairs. Michael is seeing Lucy (Melora Walters), a dance instructor, while Mary is dating Robert (Aidan Gillen), an artsy writer type. Both are on the verge of ending their marriage and starting fresh with their new partner when something strange happens- they re-discover their passion for each other. Over the course of a whirlwind few days, Michael and Mary embark on a love affair of their own, leading them to question both their decision to leave each other and the whole messy nature of love in the first place.

The Lovers is a film that is entirely built around its characters, so it's no surprise that the performances are front and center. To be completely honest, there isn't a single character in this film that I would want to spend more than five minutes with, and I think that's part of the design of Jacobs' screenplay. Winger and Letts are both insufferably boring, scatter-brained people, and their romantic partners outside of marriage aren't much better. Winger plays Mary as a woman who looks like she's about to fall asleep at any moment, exhausted by the mere action of life itself. It makes the moments where Mary finds a spark that much more interesting, and Winger delivers a finely tuned performance. Meanwhile, Letts is excellent at conveying a sort of slick laziness, mixing smooth charisma and genuine emotion to great effect. Michael is kind of a loser, but he's a lovable loser, and that makes his relationship with Mary really work.

If The Lovers has a major flaw, it's that we don't really know the characters all that well. And for a movie that puts much of its focus on the characters, that can be a problem at times. It's never all that clear why Mary and Michael have embarked on these affairs, beyond the fact that they're extremely bored in their relationship at home. Their new romantic partners aren't all that great, and it almost feels like Jacobs is inviting you to hate them. Aidan Gillen plays Robert as the uber-pretentious type, and almost everything he does feels both manipulative and despicable. Meanwhile, Melora Walters' Lucy is almost unbearably over-dramatic, annoying to the point that Michael has her labeled as "Work" in his phone. The only purely good character is taken by Jessica Sula, who plays the girlfriend of Michael and Mary's hothead son Joel (Tyler Ross). Part of the joy of The Lovers is watching how these flawed individuals behave in ridiculous situations, but the film would still be better off if we knew more about everyone involved.

But let's circle back around to the question of why they're having affairs- because this is where the movie gets really interesting. There's no question in my mind that at first, yes, Jacobs positions their respective affairs as a result of suburban discontent and an inevitability considering the doldrums of their life. But without spoiling anything, it seems like Jacobs moves away from that idea as the film moves forward. He begins to shift from the story of these four people to a breakdown of the inner workings of romance itself, proposing the idea that humans can never be happy with stability of any kind. Some may see the ending as Jacobs saying that true love never really dies, but I think that he has something much more sly and satirical on his mind. The Lovers is primarily a spectacular farce, and the way that it plays with situations and decisions is what gives it much of its momentum.

The Lovers is certainly a rather slight production, but it's consistently amusing and compelling. Long stretches go without much in the way of dialogue, allowing the film to be carried almost entirely by the dynamic orchestral score of Mandy Hoffman. But when Jacobs allows his actors to take the stage, the small cast does terrific work, twisting scenes and blending humor and emotion to great effect. Winger and Letts really carry the film, and Jacobs does a good job keeping the audience engaged even with the occasionally slow pace of the story. While it's far from a classic romantic comedy, The Lovers is good enough to recommend, delivering enough acidic charm to satisfy adult audiences looking for something refreshingly different.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.3/10)

Images courtesy of A24

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