Debra Winger, Tracy Letts sparkle in ‘The Lovers’

Cheating spouses in a presumed-dead marriage suddenly, inexplicably, feel wildly attracted to each other, and begin two-timing their extramarital partners in order to be together, in “The Lovers.”

Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, the movie could use more substance, but it’s a gracefully funny, beautifully acted variation on the romantic-comedy formula.

Jacobs, whose credits include the mini-budget “Momma’s Man” and the sensitive coming-of-ager “Terri,” operates close to the mainstream here but continues to focus on nuance and emotion. “The Lovers” brings to mind old-fashioned remarriage comedies, but reflects modern sensibilities and lacks the screwball element.

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play Mary and Michael, a long-married middle-class, late-middle-age Southern California couple who sit next to each other on the sofa but don’t communicate.

Both have younger lovers — ballet instructor Lucy (Melora Walters) in Michael’s case, and novelist Robert (Aiden Gillen) in Mary’s — and have assured their impatient paramours that divorce is imminent.

Then the seemingly impossible occurs: Michael and Mary look into each other’s eyes and fall madly back in love. They begin racing home from work to have sex. They send each other suggestive texts. They cheat on their extramarital lovers by stealthily getting steamy with each other. Suddenly, divorce seems less urgent.

Jacobs solidifies the loose-flowing story in the final act, when the couple’s college-student son (Tyler Ross) arrives with his girlfriend (Jessica Sula) and forces his parents to confront what he views as their hypocrisy.

Jacobs directs with a soft touch, sometimes undermining dramatic weight and comic impact.

Another frustration involves the tedious extramarital lovers. Robert is conceited, Lucy is high-string, and neither is appealing enough to be credible.

Still, the movie is easy to relate to as it depicts disappointments of married life; it’s also an enjoyable comedy about two people who aren’t ready to give up feeling.

Using small but expressive ingredients like awkward pauses and carnal glances, Jacobs advances the love story efficiently. His uncluttered narrative gives the leads space to create richly textured characters.

Letts — playwright, screenwriter and sometimes knockout actor (“Indignation”) — brings Michael amusingly and a bit sadly to life as a discontented man who isn’t ready to abandon his inner flame. Winger is radiant in her subtlety. When Mary receives sexy texts from Michael, her face lights up with tickled pleasure.

The couple’s chemistry is crucial to viewers’ ability to buy the nutty love story.

Regardless of whether Mary and Michael are experiencing a resurgence of passion or a lusty manifestation of parting anxiety, they qualify, in their own crazy way, as one of the year’s most convincing movie couples.

The Lovers
Three stars
Starring Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Melora Walters, Aiden Gillen
Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Note: The director is slated to answer questions in person after the 7 p.m. screening at the Embarcadero today.

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