Movie Reviews: Winger brings guilt, passion and regret to “The Lovers”

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Everything we need to know about the marriage of Mary and Michael is plain to see, just in Debra Winger’s eyes. Whatever writer-director Azazel Jacobs’ script for “The Lovers” tries to get across with words and actions, Winger manages with just a look.

There’s guilt and regret, weariness and longing and just a hint of panicked confusion, captured in lingering, wordless close-ups of Mary’s no-longer-young face. And that jolts this darkly comical exercise in romantic minimalism, a movie whose lapses in logic and rationality and minutely observed stasis needs such jolts.

Michael (actor/playwright Tracy Letts, last seen in HBO’s “Divorce”) and Mary are middle class Californians who have suffered through their cubicled careers, collected the nice suburban house and two cars and gotten their son into college.

What they’ve forgotten in all this is each other. Neglect ices up the screen when they exchange their nightly banalities after work.

“I just came from the gym.”

“Actually, I’m getting drinks with Ben after work tomorrow.”

Why they even bother lie to is a mystery. But lie they do — to each other, to themselves and to their new loves. Michael is infatuated with Lucy (Melora Walters), a children’s ballet teacher. And Mary is recapturing her youth by taking up with a younger writer (Aidan Gillen).

The remade couples communicate via that illicit-affair-enabler, the cell-phone. They text and call. They disguise the numbers that ring in as “work.” And they argue. Not Mary and Michael. They’re past that. It’s the side-guy/side-chick who hears the empty promises about “Joel, our son, is coming home…I’ll him/her then. It’s over.”

Jacobs (HBO’s “Doll & ‘Em”) crosses us up by making the paramours openly unpleasant people. Robert the writer (Gillen, also seen in “King Arthur”) is insistent, pleading and threatening. “It’s me or him, and this time I mean it.” Lucy is a weeper, a near hysteric and mistrusting enough to be the only one of all these consenting/cheating adults to figure out what’s happening.

But in both cases, we ponder the depth of the connection, the high-maintenance nature of the “new” partner. Walters’ Lucy is borderline bipolar and Letts lets on that Michael might be content to give up all the drama if things turn around with Mary.

Because they just might. The act of cheating gives the long-marrieds a little kick, magnified when they stumble into a re-attraction of sorts, a torrid clandestine affair with each other.

All of which is going to be hard to swallow when that highly-strung college kid (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend (Jessica Sula of “Split”) show up.

“The Lovers” is a compact tale, a chamber music melodrama underscored by lavish, romantic strings and a Prokofiev waltz. It never quite escapes the stage-bound feeling. Having Americans drop “hence” into everyday chit chat does that to your script.

Letts, who wrote “August: Osage County,” as an actor has a prickly persona and little of the subtlety that might make Michael attractive to a younger woman. His smiles and laughs seem insincere, though he has a droll way with come-ons, phone sex and the like. His resting bitch face from earlier roles (“Indignation”) seems his best go-to move.

But Winger, lured back onto the screen by a part that lets her show what a wonder she would have been during the silent cinema, is worth the price of admission, all by herself. Her Mary is every affair explained and justified, every punishment for such transgressions internalized.

She is the “Lover” we identify with, pity and feel for even as these aimless “Lovers” “go round and round and round in the Circle Game.”

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MPAA Rating: R for sexuality (nudity) and language (profanity)

Cast: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aidan Gillen, Melora Walters, Tyler Ross

Credits:Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:24

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