If you are expecting a light-hearted affair about the golden years of marriage, that’s a fair expectation. But this dramedy defies the standard definition of romantic comedy with its frank look at intimacy issues.
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play Kay and Arnold Soames, who with 32 years of marriage behind them have settled into a groove deeper than the Grand Canyon. To Arnold it’s a well-worn comfortable daily routine, but to Kay it’s more like solitary confinement, and she jokes at one point, “I feel like I’m married to ESPN.”
It’s clear from the beginning of this David Frankel directed piece that Kay is very unhappy and Arnold is clueless. As she tells Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), their marriage counselor, later in the film, it’s like they are roommates sharing a house. In desperation, she invests in a week with Feld, who promises in his bestselling self-help book that it’s never too late to have the marriage you desire. A very reluctant Arnold agrees to leave Omaha and go to the quaint New England town of Hope Springs, Maine, to see him only as a way of appeasing Kay. It’s pretty obvious he has no intention of actually engaging in the process.
Watching Streep and Jones navigate through this couple’s rocky relationship is a schooling in how to be an actor. In her long and distinguished career, Streep has played everything from a Holocaust survivor to a fashion magazine editor, and yet the character of Kay must have presented challenges she’s never faced. The same goes for Jones because I don’t recall either of these fine actors ever including sex scenes in their contracts.
But sex is at the very heart of what is wrong with this marriage — Kay still wants it and Arnold has just given up. The core of the movie is spent in Feld’s office in a series of “couch scenes,” and these are as clinical and straightforward as real therapy sessions, with all three actors giving thoughtful performances. Streep and Jones squirm and writhe in body language hell at the questions Feld puts to them about their intimacy problems. And things grow more uncomfortable as the two are given homework assignments to reintroduce themselves to each other on a deeper level.
Frankel finds a fine balance in how these scenes involving sexuality play out, and like Feld warns Kay and Arnold, “There will be setbacks.” There is as much laughter and levity as there is heartache and frustration, with enough of the latter to make you wonder if the two can find a way to stay together.
I’ve seen Streep joke about the fact that she is often called our greatest living actress, and it is quite a mantle to bear. She’s the closest we have to acting royalty in this country, and had she been born in England, she would have “Dame” in front of her name by now. Her interpretation of Kay is a revelation; every gesture, even the most nuanced, signals this woman’s deep despair at the way her life has turned out and her fervent desire to change it before it’s too late. Her dress, her manner, even her timid voice tell us more about her than if she had written an autobiography.
Jones, too, works with the economy of an actor who understands his craft and is performing at his peak. This character seems more of a departure for him, and Arnold, a griping cheapskate, is the riskier role — far less sympathetic than Kay. But Jones’ gruff old softy read on the character is spot on.
It’s no stretch to imagine what a train wreck this movie could have been without Streep and Jones in the leads. Despite an annoying pop song soundtrack to score every emotional milestone, there is a lot of “Hope” because of what they bring to this.