Once a long time ago it was thought that the only thing more shaming to a man than being a cuckold was being a wittol or wittold, which was a cuckold who knew he was a cuckold and didn’t do anything about it. Now the word is all but gone out of the language — the O.E.D. lists it as “obs. or arch.” — and in an era when a publication as middle-class as the New York Times Magazine runs a 12,000-word piece headed: “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?” cuckold itself can hardly be far behind it on the road to obsolescence.
That Times magazine piece ran only days after the opening of Azazel Jacobs’s The Lovers, about a middle-aged married couple who are each having an extra-marital sexual relationship with the tacit consent of the other. Mary (Debra Winger) is seeing a lugubrious writer named Robert (Aiden Gillen) while Michael (Tracy Letts) is involved with a highly-strung ballet teacher called Lucy (Melora Walters). Interestingly, Mr. Jacobs hasn’t bothered himself about the respective occupations of Mary and Michael, who both seem to work in vaguely business-related jobs in almost identical cubicles. Each is also significantly less attractive than his or her love-rival.
Except that the term is not really appropriate in the context, since Mr. Jacobs’s conceit, played for all it is worth — and a good deal more than it is worth, in my opinion — is that Michael and Mary, relieved by their mutual complaisance from the sort of marital tensions that they are now enduring instead with their respective lovers, enjoy a sudden recrudescence of love for each other. It must have looked on paper like a clever idea for that which we now erroneously call a “romantic comedy” but which is really just an old-fashioned sex-farce with pretensions to seriousness. And here the pretensions to seriousness nullify what little comedy there is.
A quick application by these coastal elitists to almost anyone living in the comparatively real world of Donald Trump’s America might have enlightened them as to what could be wrong with a movie that sets out to take a look at the lighter side of infidelity and divorce, California-style. The clever and flippant reversal of expectations just doesn’t marry up, if I may put it that way, with the seriousness of the subject to most of the rest of the world, outside our coastal bubbles. Even the sophisticated Europeans would be unlikely, now that marriage is no longer taken for granted as a cultural norm, to portray such subjects in a way so out of keeping with ordinary people’s experiences of them.
It’s true that a different perspective and a voice of criticism is supplied by Mr. Jacobs in the form of the couple’s only child, a college boy named Joel (Tyler Ross) who arrives home for a visit in company with his girlfriend (Jessica Sula), whom his parents have not yet met, just as the crisis in their marriage (or, more accurately, the respective crises in their extra-marital relationships) reaches a critical point. But Joel is such a callow, self-righteous prig — in addition to being every bit as emotionally fragile as Lucy is — that it is impossible to take him or his moral perspective on his parents’ relationship seriously.
Thus when Joel storms out of the house after comparing his father to a piece of excrement, he (or Mr. Jacobs through him) is really letting the old man off the hook — so much so, indeed, that Michael is meant to come off sympathetically for agreeing with the boy. He affects a recognition of how awful he is, but we don’t believe it any more than we do when he attempts a reconciliation with Lucy after one of their fights by saying: “I’m an idiot.” That’s just it. He’s no more an idiot than he is a piece of excrement. He hasn’t got that excuse.
Likewise, at one point he says, I can’t remember whether to wife or lover, “I’m just tired of all the bull****.” But he, or Mr. Jacobs through him, is just mouthing a familiar cliché of the situation that the film has been made to send up. In other words, it is itself bull****. He actually loves the stuff. Can’t get enough of it. And so, it turns out, does the missus. It’s just about possible for us to believe that two people in such a marriage, at least in certain parts of America today, could be quite so pleased with themselves, but for us to accept that Mr. Jacobs is quite so pleased with them too is going too far.