Could anyone match Debra Winger back in the day? From 1980’s “Urban Cowboy” to 1990’s “The Sheltering Sky,” was there another actress as vivid on screen, or who took more risks?
It’s true that even at the height of her popularity, Winger became notorious for being “difficult” to work with, and for turning down a string of hit movies. Eventually she took herself out of the Hollywood cycle (there was even a documentary called “Searching for Debra Winger,” about how Hollywood ill-serves actresses).
“The Lovers” gives Winger her most interesting project in years. It’s a small-scaled character study, but with an offbeat tone and something mysterious at its core.
In this study of a long-running marriage, Winger gets a wonderful partner to play with. Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (for “August: Osage County”) and recently a cherished character actor, is her opposite number here.
Mary and Michael have been living a bland life together for years; things are so generic their house could be a sitcom set and we never really know what they do for work. But each has a secret.
Mary has been dallying with an ardent lover (Aidan Gillen), and Michael’s been in an affair with a ballet teacher (Melora Walters). Both Mary and Michael — each unaware of the other’s straying — have promised their lovers they will bail out of the marriage, soon.
Midway through the film, something kooky and hilarious happens, and Mary and Michael discover they actually still lust for each other. They start cheating on their illicit lovers.
This is a weirdly delightful turn of events. If you insist on judging characters in movies, these folks might not seem too sympathetic, but the movie refuses to scold them.
The only character who scolds Mary and Michael is their college-age son, and he comes off as a know-it-all with little experience of life’s complexities.
Writer-director Azazel Jacobs made a couple of intriguing micro-budget indie films, “Momma’s Man” and “Terri.” This movie continues his quasi-experimental style. It is decidedly odd, and the actors sometimes look like they’re on different pages.
But it’s grown-up and surprising, and there’s pleasure to be had in watching two accomplished performers play against each other. And in the case of Debra Winger, pleasure in seeing someone who should’ve been in movies much, much more than she was.
“The Lovers” (3 stars)
An offbeat and strangely delightful film, about a longtime married couple (Debra Winger, Tracy Letts) whose extramarital affairs are challenged by the fact that they start lusting for each other again. Azazel Jacobs directs this mysterious movie, which gives a wonderful chance to watch Winger and Letts at work.
Rating: R, for language
Showing: Pacific Place, Guild 45th