For decades, the Ladies Home Journal’s most popular feature has been its monthly he-said/she-said/therapist says looks at a marriage in trouble. No matter how dire the problem — infidelity, money problems, blended family problems — somehow they (almost) always find a way to make it work. Readers love it for three reasons. One is the schadenfreude of reading about someone else’s misery and feeling better about our own problems. It’s easy for fairy tale characters to live happily ever after; for the rest of us, it takes some work. Another reason is the fun of thinking ahead to what the therapist will say to reassure us that we understand the intricacies of the relationships that for most of us are our life’s great adventure and purpose. And third is that even more than our lives as individuals, no one is an island when it comes to marriage and whether we are married or single the strength of the relationships in the community matters to us. Marriage can be a refuge of endless understanding and unconditional support. Or it can be the loneliest and most desolate place on earth. Some marriages contain both.
“Hope Springs” is the name of the town an Omaha couple visits for intensive couples therapy. And of course it is also the spirit that gets them there. Meryl Strep is Kay, who works at a Coldwater Creek store in a mall, and Tommy Lee Jones is Arnold, a partner at an accounting firm. They have been married for 31 years and are on a dismal sort of automatic pilot. They sleep in different rooms and he dozes off to the Golf Channel every night. They barely speak. She wistfully hopes for some physical and emotional intimacy. He does not let himself hope for anything. She reads a book by a couples therapist and decides to spend $4000 for a week of intensive therapy in Maine, whether Arnold will go with her or not. He is angry and uncooperative and she gets on the plane not knowing if he will join her. At the last minute, he is there.
Arnold, still grumbling about being there and complaining about the cost of everything, is uncooperative at first. But with gentle guidance from Dr. Feld (a sympathetic Steve Carell) he sees how important it is to Kay, and then he begins to see that it might be important to him, too. It is very painful at times, but at least the pain is a feeling and that is better than the numbness that they have been living with. Romantic movies are usually about people in their 20’s who fall in love. But it is people in their 50’s and 60’s who really know what love is and how much courage it takes to stay in love. And sometimes it takes them that long to learn that the clearest path to enduring love may not be that women’s magazine perennial, communication, but sharing laughter. Arnold and Kay first begin to thaw when at dinner together he makes her laugh by imitating the therapist.
The story and script are nothing special, though a little less sit-com-y than the trailer suggests. And it hurries us through the last half hour, skipping some of the emotional beats necessary to earn the ending. If these people got married in the 1980’s, it is hard to imagine Kay would be so reluctant to speak up earlier or that Arnold would be so one-dimensional. But Streep and Jones are pure magic, creating nuance and complexity that goes beyond the script. The fear, the longing, the tenderness of these characters are beautifully illuminated in performances of exquisite understanding. Streep’s face as she tries to pull together to courage to walk from her bedroom to his heartbreakingly mingles hope, terror, insecurity, resilience, and attempted sexiness. They play people we think of as ordinary. But Streep and Jones give them the extraordinary attention that illuminates the characters with such sensitivity that we want very much to see them live happily ever after. They show us that the luckiest among us fall in love more than once — with the same person.
Parents should know that this film has some very explicit sexual references and pretty explicit situations and some strong language.
Family discussion: Why was it hard for Kay and Arnold to talk to each other about their feelings? What was the most important thing they learned from therapy? Who among your friends and family has an especially strong and enduring relationship and what makes it work?
If you like this, try: “Two for the Road”