(2012) Romantic Comedy (Columbia/MGM) Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Elisabeth Shue, Jean Smart, Brett Rice, Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, Patch Darragh, Charles Techman, Daniel J. Flaherty, Damian Young, Mimi Rogers, Ann Harada, Jack Haley. Directed by David Frankel
Marriages are rarely simple relationships. The longer you are in one, the more depth it creates, the more layers are produced. This is usually a good thing but sometimes habit can become routine which can become stifling. It isn’t long before a good marriage on the surface can turn into quite something else on the inside.
Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) have been married for 31 years. They live a comfortable existence in Omaha; he works for an insurance company, she works part time in a boutique. They have a grown daughter Molly (Ireland) who is married to Mark (Darragh). They also have a grown son Brad (Rappaport) who is single. When they gather for their parents anniversary, they are unsurprised to learn that their anniversary gift to each other is a new cable package.
The thrill is most definitely gone and while Kay longs for intimacy, Arnold seems far more interested in golf magazines. He’s terse, rigid and really doesn’t listen to his wife at all. Kay is miserable and she has reached her breaking point.
Then she discovers Dr. Feld (Carell), who specializes in couples counseling. She signs up the two of them using her own money for an intensive couples therapy session for a week in Great Hope Springs, Maine. At first, Arnold is aghast at the idea. When Kay (for once) stands up and lets him know she’s going with or without him, he finally relents and shows up on the plane at the last minute.
Once at counseling, Arnold proves to be not much better. He growls and grouses, finding no value in what is being offered, sure that this is some kind of scam meant to take a perfectly healthy relationship (which he believes his relationship with Kay to be) and somehow turn it on itself, creating problems where there were none in order to prolong the agony (and the payments).
Kay grows frustrated an walks away from the EconoLodge they are staying in (in separate beds – they haven’t slept in the same room let alone the same bed for years) and finds a sympathetic bartender (Shue). Eventually she is convinced to return back to therapy.
Arnold does try a little bit harder but there seems to be an insurmountable gulf between them. Dr. Feld gives them intimacy exercises but after some early success they seem to end in abject failure. Dr. Feld counsels Arnold that some couples come to him to save their relationship; others come to end it. Which one will Arnold and Kay opt for?
Points to Frankel and writer Vanessa Taylor for taking a long, adult look at what goes on inside a real marriage. Usually when Hollywood does so there’s some sort of infidelity involved. That’s not the case here. This is a relationship with real problems (not that cheating isn’t a real problem – it’s just the kind of sexy problem that Hollywood tends to beat with a stick until it’s hamburger, mainly because studio chiefs think forbidden fruit tends to sell a lot of tickets which it does). There are warts here, and to the credit of both Frankel and Taylor along with Streep and Jones there are no attempts to hide the warts with make-up.
Streep is, as I’ve said elsewhere, maybe the best actress of her generation. This is a bit of a courageous role for her; she has to play a shy, girlish and somewhat hen-pecked wife who is coming to terms with a force of sexuality she’s never had to really face. There are several scenes in which she displays sexual arousal to a rather strong degree and it’s quite…stimulating. But this isn’t really her movie.
The movie belongs in every way to Tommy Lee Jones. This is a bit outside his comfort zone thus far in his career; he tends to play testy, irritable people and he does so here; but Arnold is a testy, irritable person with problems he hasn’t yet confronted about himself and during the course of the movie, he does just that. Jones has never seemed comfortable with a lot of self-analysis in his films but he gives an adept performance that carries the film which Streep mostly is content for him to do.
Carell has emerged as one of the biggest comedic actors today but he is curiously subdued, almost a straight man. This isn’t one of his more memorable roles, but he is well-suited for the part and underplays it nicely.
The problems of sex in a long marriage are not really discussed in polite society; we just assume that married couples approaching their sixties don’t have much sex and are perfectly content to do so. In fact, we assume that anyone who doesn’t look like they’re in their 30s at most don’t have sex because…well, ewwww.
That’s not terribly realistic. The sex drive may diminish but it doesn’t go away completely for all of us and there are some couples in their 80s who have surprisingly healthy sex lives. People don’t have to look like Brad and Angelina to have sex although Hollywood tends to reinforce the idea that people who are obese, less attractive or socially awkward are less sexually desirable.
That’s hogwash. There’s somebody for everybody but you have to be willing to take a chance. This movie is really about a couple who haven’t been doing that for awhile; they’ve wrapped themselves up in routines and familiarity so tightly that they’ve forgotten what attracted them to one another in the first place – and that part is still there. So there that it can’t be hidden but it can be overlooked.
REASONS TO GO: Quite funny in places. Great chemistry between Jones and Streep. Carell is also quite droll.
REASONS TO STAY: Mostly predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: The situations are adult and generally fairly sexual; there is also a scene of masturbation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was another romantic comedy named Hope Springs set in New England (in this case Vermont) from 2003 and starring Colin Firth, Heather Graham and Minnie Driver. Other than the title, the two films are unrelated.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The reviews are solidly positive.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Complicated
NEW ENGLAND GETAWAY LOVERS: While the charms of a New England village getaway are extolled here, some of the scenes were filmed in New York as well as Connecticut.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Campaign