In "The Lovers," an exquisitely funny-sad portrait of a marriage that's fallen on hard times, it's never entirely clear to whom the title refers. That's only fitting, since Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts), the wife and husband at the center of Azazel Jacobs' lovely new movie, can scarcely figure out their own feelings on the matter.
They spend their days sleepwalking through their jobs: Michael routinely shows up late at the office; Mary distractedly blows off lunches and meetings. At night they return home, invariably at odd hours, awkwardly occupying the same space but never sharing more than a few words. Their marriage is in a severe rut and has been for years, but Jacobs spares us the tedium of backstory and exposition, or worse, the movie-friendly spectacle of angry voices and shattered crockery. His characters' silences speak genuine volumes.
Besides, they have other people they can talk to. Michael is carrying on an affair with Lucy (Melora Walters), a ballet instructor, while Mary is seeing Robert (Aidan Gillen), a novelist. Having a fling with a younger, hotterartiste type may be a midlife-crisis cliché, but it's one that writer-director Jacobs invests with real flesh, blood and feeling: He takes these relationships as seriously as his characters do. Both Michael and Mary assure their demanding paramours that they will break things off with their spouses very shortly.
But then something wondrous and sublimely simple happens. Perhaps encouraged by the ever-present caress of Mandy Hoffman's score, Mary and Michael find themselves falling back into each other's arms, shocked to realize that, after years of emotional numbness, they still have real, passionate feelings for each other. Soon they're not just two-timing each other but their new partners as well, sneaking around and making up excuses so they can retreat to the privacy of the suburban home they've shared for years.
This inspired twist transforms "The Lovers" into a gentle, contemporary spin on that tried-and-true Hollywood genre known as the comedy of remarriage, which counts "The Awful Truth," "His Girl Friday" and "The Lady Eve" among its most venerable examples. Jacobs isn't working in a farcical or screwball mode, but his work has a wonderfully deadpan comic lightness all the same. Watch Michael hilariously feign conversation with a blank wall as he tries to extract himself from a phone call with Lucy, who always seems to know when he's lying to her (which is often).
Played with angry conviction by Walters, Lucy is the most tempestuous figure on-screen by far, and there are moments when her rage almost feels like more than this delicate, winsome movie can bear. Yet it absolutely can. "The Lovers" is the kind of work that often gets dismissed as a "small movie," as if tonal restraint and a low budget were somehow synonymous with a lack of ambition. In fact, its emotional reserves are deeper and more capacious, its sense of mystery more profound, than in just about any American movie of any scale I've seen in recent memory.
Exploratory rather than emphatic, "The Lovers" feels recognizably of a piece with Jacobs' 2008 film, "Momma's Man," a very different portrait of a married couple (played by the director's parents, the avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and the painter Flo Jacobs). That film was set in motion by a child's homecoming, and "The Lovers" makes use of a similar device in its second half, when Michael and Mary's son, Joel (Tyler Ross), arrives with his girlfriend (Jessica Sula) in tow — a development that gradually spurs his mom and dad toward their long-overdue reckoning.
Are Michael and Mary falling back in love, or are they experiencing a subliminal echo of the passion they once felt — a small, necessary blip of rekindled feeling in the course of their long goodbye? Jacobs never says, instead allowing us to draw our own conclusions from what we see etched in his actors' faces.
Letts, so forceful in last year's "Christine" and "Indignation," tamps down wonderfully here, his later scenes hinting poignantly at a life riddled with quiet disappointments and unrealized dreams. Winger, in her first major big-screen performance in years, is even more affectingly subdued. She never raises her voice, but her eyes seem to express everything: anxiety, desire, regret, gratitude. And something more — a thrill of surprise that life, not unlike this movie, can still renew our capacity for feeling.
MPAA rating: R, for sexuality and language
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles