It's not often that I find myself struggling to find enough to say about a film. But The Lovers, the latest from writer-director Azazel Jacobs (Momma's Man, Terri), is an oddly empty little movie. It takes a juicy premise and two fine actors — including the too-scarce, always-welcome Debra Winger — and fails to do much with them. Some will call this artistically rigorous restraint; I call it a missed opportunity.
On the plus side, this is a comedy (sort of) about romance in late middle age that feels genuinely, unapologetically adult. Granted, the premise would work just fine in a fluffy Nancy Meyers flick: Mary (Winger), who has been living in an unhappy marriage with a guy on the side, finds herself unexpectedly falling back in lust and love with her husband, Michael (Tracy Letts). But romance doesn't transform Mary into a giggly teenager prone to embarrassing pratfalls, as so often happens in more commercial movies of this ilk. While her mood does improve, she remains a little mournful and remote, like a woman who's lived long enough not to put much stock in any passing passion.
Mary and Michael both have lovers of long standing who are eager to monopolize their affections. Both have also (independently) promised those lovers they'll come clean and end the marriage right after an impending visit from their touchy adult son (Tyler Ross).
Then one morning, Mary and Michael wake up face-to-face, and something sparks between them. Has an old passion been rekindled? Have they become such strangers to each other that their reunion holds the allure of the unknown? Or are they merely, on some level, looking for a reason not to commit to the new relationships in which they're embroiled?
Jacobs leaves all those possibilities open, largely by underscripting the film. As played by playwright Letts (August: Osage County), Michael shows the most personality on screen; prickly and self-deprecating, he has a testy relationship with volatile ballerina Lucy (Melora Walters) even before he starts "cheating" on her with his wife. It's easy to see why he'd have second thoughts about starting a new life with a possessive prima donna.
Mary's extramarital relationship, by contrast, hasn't been fleshed out at all. Her hunky writer boyfriend (Aidan Gillen) seems like a generically swell guy; the only hint of discontent is a scene in which she falls asleep listening to him read his own prose aloud.
Falling asleep isn't a surprising response to anything in this exceedingly low-key film. The music by Mandy Hoffman, which suggests a rollicking vintage Italian sex comedy, pops up sporadically to supply an incongruous burst of energy. But the lives on screen remain resolutely drab.
Perhaps what The Lovers needs is the verbal verve of a screenplay from the likes of Noah Baumbach or Husbands and Wives-era Woody Allen — someone who really gets the ways in which couples drive each other crazy. When Jacobs tries to steer the film into high drama territory, it just gets soapy. Mary and Michael's son is a borderline-offensive caricature of a whiny, clingy millennial, and every scene with him drags the movie down.
By the time The Lovers reaches a gently ironic conclusion, it feels like a faux European character study made without the psychological acumen that underlies real European character studies (the good ones, anyway). Exciting as it is to see Winger in a lead role on the big screen, The Lovers doesn't draw forth her famous smoldering energy — or have much of its own.