I am in shock.
I just saw a mainstream summer Hollywood movie that treated sex as an expression of intimacy in a committed relationship. Furthermore, this movie is about marriage. Marriage. Not marriage and murderous revenge after the wife gets kidnapped. Not marriage and drug addiction that winds up with the wife becoming a prostitute. Not marriage and infidelity that winds up with the husband betraying his family and running off with the daughter of a Mexican drug lord.
Marriage of a very ordinary middle-aged couple from Omaha, Nebraska. Arnold and Kay. She works at Coldwater Creek and shops at Barnes & Noble. He works in finance and watches golf. They go for intensive couples counseling in a picturesque Maine town called (permission to groan granted) Hope Springs. Steve Carrell plays the therapist. Guffaws ensue, right?
What ensues is a series of intimate scenes between a very fine pair of actors, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, played not for laughs but for honesty. Pastors and counselors who see this film will recognize the authenticity of Vanessa Taylor’s straightforward screenplay, where Dr. Feld asks Arnold in a measured, kind and professional tone, “Is that the best you can do?”
The dialogue is page after page of real-to-life questions and responses familiar to anyone who works with long-married couples. Dr. Feld doesn’t leave enough time for his clients to respond, sure, and he emphasizes sexual intimacy far more than most couples counselors do, but that’s as far as the Hollywoodization of this process goes. Steve Carrell gives a beautifully serious performance, making Dr. Feld someone whose name you wish you had in your Rolodex to refer parishioners to. This man clearly cares, and the cheezey set-up threatened by casting such a gifted comic in the role and setting the action in a small, seaside Maine town where one might reasonably expect a “wacky Down Easters teach the repressed Midwesterners how to loosen up!” plot to develop — doesn’t develop. It’s a minor miracle.
The movie was greatly hampered by a noxiously overbearing soundtrack of “GET THE MESSAGE” pop tunes, but that couldn’t destroy its integrity. It’s a strange little movie, really — not truly a romantic comedy and not a drama, either. There are no comedy shenanigans — no one sprains a muscle trying a creative sex position and needs to be carried out of the hotel room on a stretcher. There are no tragic revelations: no one turns out to be keeping a painful secret or keels over of a heart attack before the last act.
What there is is recognizable people dealing with recognizable and familiar pain. Arnold and Kay are no more articulate than the average American of their generation. Their grievances against each other, revealed in one of the rare scenes where they actually speak freely and without walking on eggshells of Midwestern politesse with each other, are as petty as your own grievances with your spouse of 31 years. Kay’s loneliness is not expressed in any particularly eloquent way. She is an ordinary woman and she speaks in ordinary, and even dull, terms. I would have preferred to see a less showy actress in the role than Meryl Streep, whose technical brilliance is sometimes a bit much for this simple woman, but Tommy Lee Jones was perfect in the role and had fantastic chemistry with Streep.
This isn’t a great movie. It isn’t very entertaining and it’s not at all exciting. It’s a slice of life about people like you and me, written, directed and acted with respect and care. And that’s special enough that I highly recommend it to you.