There is a truly great comic moment in "The Lovers." It comes at a wonderful time and for a good reason -- it has to. Otherwise you might be tempted to abandon the movie altogether. It finally announces what the whole film is about.
It's about a long-married husband and wife who have each settled into having long-term affairs. We spend an uncomfortably long preliminary time observing them with their respective lovers -- each of whom has been told that any minute now, after their grown son has completed one of his regular visits home, a divorce and remarriage are imminent.
It's a nerve-wracking, squalid existence. Even worse, it is accompanied by the worst musical soundtrack I've heard in many years of movies. The composer's name is Mandy Hoffman, who fills our ears with frolicsome strings in waltz time just to make sure we know that the movie is a comedy. You can understand why she thought we'd need to know because while setting up each infidelity, things look awfully dreary.
And then our married couple accidentally wake up together one morning face to face. Nose to nose. Lips to lips. They open their eyes, almost together. And, within seconds, they feel a rekindled carnal spark they clearly hadn't felt in a long time. The way Tracy Letts and Debra Winger open their eyes to each other in an unlikely renewal of romance is very, very funny.
Talk about inconvenient.
And that begins the movie proper. A lot of the dreariness ends and we are then watching as a married couple begins having a passionate affair which is cheating quite passionately on the lovers with whom each is seriously cheating (and promising divorce and remarriage any day now).
This is, of course, a golden comic idea. As Noel Coward could have told you when he created a variation of it almost 90 years ago in his play "Private Lives."
Unfortunately, "The Lovers" is a pretty good comedy that keeps wanting to have the emotional gravitas of a soap opera. All of which is very lovely, but it mires us in each one of the illicit relationships which, I must say, looked like almost no fun at all -- not the husband with his ballet teacher lover (played by Melora Walters) or the wife's affair with the pettish writer (played by Aidan Gillen). If adultery is going to look that nerve-wracking and squalid, you might want to give serious thought to being faithful.
From where I sat, the unpleasantness of each illicit relationship didn't help the movie's cause much.
It should have taken its cue from Coward and stuck more with comedy rather than present us with one cheating partner who likes to stalk his husband/rival in grocery stores and another who likes to accost her wife/rival on the street and hiss at her like an angry Persian cat. (A scene that should have been funnier and not as nutty and scary.)
What is very much worth seeing here, though, despite miscalculations that pile up before the close are the actors who play the husband and wife -- actor-playwright Letts and, hallelujah, Winger, whom we have had to do without for far too long at the movies.
These are actors who gloriously wallop you in this movie with their lack of vanity. He has gray hair and an unashamed middle-aged paunch which he tosses around with no desire whatsoever to look like Zac Efron. She has the neck of a mature actress who has had no work done on herself.
The pleasure of watching two mature actors negotiate every inch of irony and rue and repressed wryness in this tale is sufficient to make it watchable--especially when one member of that couple is Winger, a great American movie actress whose integrity was enough to virtually remove her from the big screen for years.
Winger and Letts would be worth watching onscreen whatever they wanted to do, even it meant putting up with a musical score whose composer should have been put into custody. And an ending which is thoroughly dislikable any way you look at it.
An interesting irony there: "The Lovers" is not exactly an original title in movies. The first and best to make use of it was Louis Malle's 1958 wonderment which introduced American audiences to a French woman whose life with both her husband and polo-playing lover were equally boring so she ran off with a young man she met when her car broke down. The final love scene in the film took nearly 30 minutes.
It was a movie Americans could relish for Jeanne Moreau and the notably different French take on marital fidelity. But most of all it was a movie that could be remembered for actually making the string quintets of Johannes Brahms erotic. They accompanied the sex. In 1958 America, it was considered so risque that it went to the Supreme Court, where Justice Potter Stewart immortally wrote that he knew pornography when he saw it and Malle's movie was definitely not it.
2.5 stars (out of four)
Starring: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Melora Walters, Aidan Gillen, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Running time: 93 minutes.
Rating: R for language, nudity and sex
The lowdown: A long-married couple takes time off from their affairs with others to fall for each other again.