Directed by Azazel Jacobs, The Lovers is a disturbing film because its characters are morally bankrupt human beings. Discussions over likeability have become a trend in recent years. Most critics argue in favor of un-likability. Humanity is nasty, brutish and short. It’s the responsibility of intelligent cultural creators to present a world that’s not always pretty and perfect. Yet the four middle-aged protagonists who bang, lie and cry their way through The Lovers are so ethically warped and intrinsically un-likable that one might find oneself longing for likeability, or if not that, then at least for human goodness, of which this film has none.
Tony Award-winning Tracy Letts and Oscar-nominated Debra Winger star as Michael and Mary, a married couple whose passion has long since faded. They go through the motions of their tedious office jobs and address each other from a polite distance in their temperate California home. Their only salvation lies with deception. In this case, it’s the illicit nature of cheating that allows Michael and Mary the Dionysian release their bland home life is missing.
Cheaters can make for interesting characters, but Michael and Mary’s duplicity is neither funny nor clever. When Michael placates Lucy (Melora Walters), a sensitive and sometimes volatile ballet teacher, about the exact date he plans to leave his wife, she screams at him in a parking lot and he shrugs. The scene is lifeless. Meanwhile, Mary cuddles with Robert (Aidan Gillen), a dweeby novelist who enjoys reading aloud from his own books. She’s more sympathetic than Michael but that might simply be because Winger’s face is objectively lovely and deeply expressive. Her performance is the only ray of light in this dreary, depressing film.
Writer-director Jacobs (Terri) has a thing for sad sacks. One critic compared his work to that of Todd Solondz and the compliment is not deserved. Whereas films like Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Palindromes are also centered on lives of quiet desperation in buttoned-up suburban settings, their characters are filled with vulnerability and their aggressions are clearly misplaced feelings of shame or fear. In The Lovers, it’s hard to know which characters to feel sorry for because they’re all so blatantly unappealing. Michael and Mary are pathetic for stringing along otherwise respectable adults. Robert and Lucy are equally unappealing for demanding love and attention from married folks, going so far as to hiss and pout like adolescents. Detestable characters can be lovable but it takes an extraordinary artist to make them so.
The only redeeming character in The Lovers is a minor one: the college girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula), of Michael and Mary’s son. She tags along on her boyfriend’s visit home, and she’s the only character in the film who actually listens to what anyone is saying. As a compassionate person thrown into a cycle of self-centeredness, however, Erin remains helpless to fix anyone or anything.
Great films don’t have to be gentle or pure. “Nice” is boring, and many of our greatest storytellers knew that to be true. We love Alfred Hitchcock for his villains, Flannery O’Connor for her bigoted grandmothers and the cast of Seinfeld for their tactless and flailing selfishness. Un-likable characters externalize and free us from certain flaws of our own. The Lovers fails because it makes only a paltry effort at revealing the ways cruelty is a mask for pain. Rather than delve deeper into the human psyche, it skips off into the sunset with a sense of cynicism overpowering in its unwillingness to question itself.
Through tidy shots and beige palates, Jacobs seems to imply that Michael and Mary’s boredom is created and affirmed by their soul-crushing environments. According to Jacobs, romantic love is a negative equation wherein passion plus time equals complacency. He tries to give Michael a backstory as a failed musician but that doesn’t work either; his song is mawkish and annoying. In the end, Michael and Mary do not fall back in love or learn anything from their mistakes. Their modus operandi is cheating, with deception being the only art of which these depressed egoists are capable.
I don’t intend this review to be an attack of Jacobs’ character. He surely intended The Lovers to be a comedy, as its genre on IMDB suggests. What I can say for certain is that when I left the theater after The Lovers, the world was bleaker, sadder and less compassionate than the world I had seen before. The feeling passed — thank goodness — in part because my girlfriend met me. She reminded me that love is real. The Lovers, unfortunately, did not.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.