In “The Lovers,” a sly but forgiving sex comedy by Azazel Jacobs, Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play a couple trapped in a marriage as drab as the dun-colored walls of their nondescript suburban house. Their characters, Mary and Michael, never argue or come to psychodramatic blows. They’re too exhausted for that. Instead, they engage in the kind of kitchen-table politesse that passes for communication among the empty-nested and attenuated. They keep calm. They soldier on. They remember to buy more toothpaste.
Except, as the movie opens, the status quo is in danger of coming undone. And what ensues is the kind of bedroom farce that filmmakers such as Ernst Lubitsch and Woody Allen have made so simultaneously light and lethal. A roundelay of ruptures, reconciliations and recapitulations, “The Lovers” plays with slippery notions of fidelity, turning them inside out to reveal either the truth or hypocrisy underneath. Anchored by vivid and masterfully calibrated performances from Winger and Letts, and sent aloft by a lilting orchestral score that infuses the most everyday banalities with big, melodramatic emotions, the movie is a tarnished ode to aging, compromise and new beginnings. Jacobs, who made the equally observant “Momma’s Man” and “Terri,” resists the urge to woo the audience with reassuring lies. He’s no cynic, but he’s not a pushover, either.
Here, the filmmaker evinces a particular gift for staging, composition and framing, presenting Mary and Michael in their personal and professional habitats (the latter of which are interchangeably blah) with elegant discretion and tact. There are some bracing sequences of physical comedy, such as when Winger and Letts bring wine glasses to their lips at precisely the same moment, or when Michael engages in elaborate pantomime in an office parking lot while carrying on a deception over his phone. It bears noting that two other character come into play in “The Lovers”: a spiky, neurotic dance instructor named Lucy (played by Melora Walters in her finest performance since “Magnolia”) and a handsome Irishman named Robert (Aidan Gillen). The question of whether and how these four will come together, stay together, collide or stay in the corners of their respective wounded psyches propels the suspense of “The Lovers” and ultimately sends the married protagonists in directions that few will see coming.
There are so many reasons to value “The Lovers,” chief among them the showcase it provides Winger, who at 61 proves every bit as authentic and earthily seductive as she was when she became a huge star 35 years ago. For his part, Letts — who has been typecast lately as politicians and professors — brings his now-signature brand of presentness to a role that may seem softer and more vulnerable than usual, but only on its most seemingly benign surface.
As a rare romantic comedy featuring actors who resemble real people — as opposed to the shiny, happy human simulacra that populate most of our wish-fulfillment escapes — “The Lovers” combines otherwise contradictory values of realism and fantasy with incisive honesty and relaxed, unforced grace. Jacobs isn’t as interested in whether this marriage can be saved as whether it should be. In a movie as alert to the nuances of low-key misery as it is to moments of sudden, unguarded tenderness, the answer is tantalizingly elusive up to the very end. Flustered, flirty and filled to the brim with compassion, “The Lovers” is charming, even when it’s proving how hollow charm can be.