Kay (played by Meryl Streep) flicks her hair in toilet and looks at the mirror. She’s dressed provocatively for her age. She enters her husband’s bedroom. “Hi, I thought maybe today,” she stutters. Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) sprawls on the bed reading a magazine. “Today what?” He shoots a glance at her. He suddenly understands that she’s hinting that she wants to sleep on the same bed. Arnold shrugs, “Oh I have a headache today.” She says it’s okay, not a big deal. And then hobbles into her bedroom. The scene’s quite poignant, and shows the self-assuredness and confidence of Hollywood’s two prominent thespians. A stilted conversation, disinclination to make eye contact, and right there we know the central conflict of the movie.
They have been married for 31 years. And have been sleeping in separate bedrooms since quite a long time. And haven’t had sex for equally longer. But theirs is not a particularly unhappy marriage either. She cooks breakfast for him in the morning, and he kisses her goodbye before going to office. Both of them care for each other, like married couples are expected to. They are also well-off financially, so nothing terribly wrong there either. But a closer look into their relationship dynamics and it appears as if she is nonexistent for him. He reads his morning newspaper like an automaton, callous to her presence, comes back from work and sleeps later in the night on a living room couch, the TV switched on showing some sort of a tutorial on how to play golf. His world is quite sad and mundane. Sad because it is mundane.
And she is the only one who looks bummed out about her uninteresting marriage life. She browses self-help books in a bid to spice up her marriage. And stumbles on to a book by Dr. Feld (Steve Carell, fantastic bit of casting). He has a week-long intensive counselling program for unhappy couples. She signs up for it, without telling Arnold about it. He has no choice but to tag along.
One of the highpoints of the movie is its tone. It knows it’s tackling a subject of uncommon maturity, and a subject whose scars are well known. But instead of bucking down under its weight, it turns the subject on its head, exploiting the idiosyncrasies of many scenes (which at their core are nothing but heart-breaking moments), and thus the movie has a playful, even goofy mood in its initial scenes.
But then it’s not that difficult to know that the movie will turn somber at some point of time. In Dr. Feld’s office, Kay admits she doesn’t harbor any sexual fantasies, while Arnold admits to having quite a few of them. Kay insinuates Arnold doesn’t make her feel special. And it’s then we truly understand that it is basically a relationship between two incompatible people – both of them are famished for attention – Kay longs for emotional attention, Arnold, sexual. What’s even sadder is the fact that Kay can’t fulfill those sexual fantasies of Arnold. Not that she doesn’t want to, just that she is not that kind of a person. Dr. Feld listens quietly her recounting this problem and then asks her, “Is your pride more important than this relationship?” I thought it was a rather discomfiting question, and a question many relationships would not be unfamiliar to. Which makes it an important movie, and may I dare use the much abused phrase, ‘a story that should have been told.’
Around three-fourth of the movie, Kay discovers another unsettling truth about the relationship. And it’s something both of them can’t do anything about. Because no one’s really wrong here. The movie keeps popping up unsettling truth about relationships time and again, and by doing that it keeps entangling itself, as there is no easy way out of such questions. Also, it’s a very tricky terrain – this balancing of being frivolous and gloomy. It is then the movie relents, because it is fixated on being a light-hearted comedy, and too timid to confront the solemn truth buried deep in its own self. A flaw far too common to many Hollywood romantic comedies. And therefore it has to resolve its own conundrum by providing a ridiculously and unfairly easy denouement. It’s a shame really, because the movie in parts is really promising, and could have easily zoomed into being great. But it ignores its own brilliance, because when you are too busy telling a joke, laughing at the end is the only thing that matters, isn’t it?