As Debra Winger eases into her 60s, her face has become a map of disappointment, experience, wisdom. A grainy-voiced, against-the-grain ingénue in the early 1980s, the actress represented the last gasp of a certain instinctual free spirit in Hollywood casting, before the suits came in and test-marketed everything into blandness. Winger was a big hit in “Urban Cowboy” (1980), “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982), and “Terms of Endearment” (1983), and then she was just a big pain as far as the studios were concerned. She disappeared, but not really. You had to know where to look.
“The Lovers” is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand but it gives Winger one of her richest roles in ages. It’s a suburban tragicomedy about a couple, Mary (Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts), who have been married for so many years they can’t stand the sight of each other. Each is involved in a long-term affair with an outside partner, Mary with a needy, preening writer (Aidan Gillen, Littlefinger on “Game of Thrones”) and Michael with a neurotic dancer (Melora Walters) who’s getting tired of waiting for him to leave his wife.
Mary and Michael’s marriage is so dead that their respective affairs have become their marriages, their primary emotional centers. And as the movie starts, something weird is happening. Husband and wife begin to look at each other as a forbidden Other. It’s kind of hot.
The premise is vaguely similar to the Alec Baldwin-Meryl Streep comedy “It’s Complicated,” but that was a big Nancy Meyers crowd pleaser and “The Lovers” is a wee deadpan chamber farce, written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, who makes movies unlike anyone else. The son of experimental filmmaking legend Ken Jacobs, he broke through with “Momma’s Man” (2008), about a grown man who visits his parents and can’t bring himself to return to the adult world; Jacobs cast his own mother and father and shot in the SoHo loft in which he grew up.
No one saw Jacobs’s “Terri” (2011), which plays a little like “Rushmore” with gentleness replacing the quirk, but I wrote then that the director was advancing in a novel direction — sideways — and “The Lovers” confirms it. The film’s moments are droll and suggestive and scattered at random; only slowly does a portrait emerge of isolated people condemned to love those they can’t have and grow bored with those they do.
As I said, it’s a comedy, or mostly. And a lot of the humor, sage as it is, comes from the players, Winger and Letts in particular. The former’s performance is an essay on exhaustion and amazed, sensual renewal; the latter is best known as a playwright, author of “August: Osage County” and the fearsome “Killer Joe,” but he acts, too, and won a Tony in a 2012 revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Mary and Michael are like that play’s George and Martha with the wind taken out of their sails; they’re too beaten down to even argue anymore. Is that why they suddenly find their sex drives revving uncontrollably in each other’s presence? “The Lovers” dips happily into a subject that will mortify audiences under 30 — the randiness of people over 50 — and the horror on the face of the couple’s grown son Joel (Tyler Ross) when he catches mom and dad snogging in the pantry is a sight to behold.
Is it too late for Joel to believe his parents might not be the most loveless couple on the face of the earth? Is it too late for Mary and Michael? “The Lovers” springs a few slow-motion surprises in its final act, but some viewers may be frustrated that the film never boils over, never quite hits a dramatic climax, choosing instead to bump along the way life does.
The director’s one outré production choice is an old-school orchestral score (by Mandy Hoffman) that swoons melodramatically in the background (and occasionally foreground) of these dusty, repressed lives. At first it’s an annoyance, and then you may think it’s satire. With luck, by the end, you may hear what Jacobs does: the aching romantic movie imprisoned in each of us, desperate for release.
Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs. Starring Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Melora Walters, Aidan Gillen, Tyler Ross. At Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square. 94 minutes. R (grown-up sexuality and fed-up language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.