Let's Stay Together
“Who in here is not having sex?” As Karen (Elizabeth Shue) asks her customers at the bar she’s tending in Great Hope Springs, Maine, the camera looks out over a room full of shaggy fellows and sturdy women. Gathered on a sunny afternoon, they duck their heads and raise their hands, then all smile and toast themselves. The stranger in town, Kay (Meryl Streep), looks surprised, then pleased. She’s just confessed her sad secret to Karen—that she’s not having sex with her husband of 31 years—but now, in this supportive crowd, the crisis suddenly seems less acute.
The scene in Hope Springs here cuts to Kay’s return to the Econo Lodge room she’s sharing with her husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). She’s drunk, of course, though the film doesn’t show her in conversation with any of the other bar patrons, or the jokes or observations that might have helped her to get over the fight she’s had with Arnold. All you need to know is that she’s now feeling relaxed enough that she might forget what made her so mad at Arnold and agree, when he asks, to try “that thing” their therapist suggested.
That thing—which is hugging each other for a few minutes—is a first step in “rebuilding” their marriage, according to Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell). Kay and Arnold have traveled to Maine for a week’s worth of sessions with him, an idea she came up with after she read his book, You Can Have the Marriage You Want. The marriage she wants is the marriage she remembers having, decades ago; he has no idea what marriage he wants, but he hasn’t read the book either.
Still, Kay hopes that her husband will want what she wants. It’s a standard rom-com set-up, where the girl has feelings to express and the boy prefers to repress. The twist would appear to be that they’re old, but that doesn’t actually affect the formula (a frightening thought, if you’ve always hoped that as you get older, you might get past the tedious business of youthful follies). Kay doesn’t say it, but the movie ensures you know what she’d say if she could, showing their routine from low or skewed angles emphasizing her confinement, the kitchen or her bedroom as very tight space. Each morning she makes him an egg and bacon, he reads the paper. He notices if she deviates, say, if she doesn’t sit with him, but he doesn’t trouble himself to soothe her or change his behavior. In the evenings, after each has spent a day at work, he eats pot roast or spaghetti and then settles into his easy chair, where he falls asleep watching the Golf Channel.
During these moments, the camera keeps Kay’s face in frame, her disappointment plain. Sympathetic, earnest, and determined, Kay is your easiest point of entry, as Arnold plays something of a straight man, barely verbal when they share an anniversary dinner with their grown-up kids, plausibly skeptical of a doctor who charges $4000 for five sessions: “The more we tear each other apart,” he tells Feld as Kay doesn’t much cover up her embarrassment, “The more we have to pay you to put it back together.”
The movie spends long minutes laying out this opposition, Arnold growls and grumps (“If he says one word about repressed memories, I am leaving”), Kay teeters between apprehension and acquiescence, warmth and brittleness, barely contained by her pretty flowery cardigans. He’s got a friend at work and so does she (played by the severely underused Jean Smart, Eileen advises early on that “Marriages don’t change”). Some of us could watch Jones’ incredible face all day; it’s helpful too that Streep makes Kay’s otherwise predictable responses even vaguely convincing, creating nuance in her fleeting expressions, betraying at once her vulnerability and determination. In the bar with all her new friends who aren’t having sex, Kay looks mortified and relieved, hesitant and enchanted, all in about two seconds.
Kay offers a similar complexity in Feld’s office, even as she seems the injured party, seeking explanation or justice or, as she says more than once, “change.” While the cliché is mostly extra-visible, as Kat and Arnold sit at opposite sides of the comfy couch and do their best not to say much or to look at one another, the doctor between them, teasing them with questions (“How’d you make love? What positions?”).
But sometimes, these back-and-forths in the office are transformed into little symphonies of hurt, Arnold and Kay’s well-rehearsed feints giving way to looks of surprise (Arnold when he hears she’s never had a sexual fantasy not featuring him) or one-liner complaints or confessions (“You’re married to ESPN”). You begin to get the idea they share a history, textured and confusing when Arnold suggests that Kay had a decisive part in their initial drifting apart. For a couple of seconds, the movie almost looks like it’s going to do something to surprise you.
And then it doesn’t. If the exchanges between Arnold and Kay can be both corny and intricate, they are at last a couple in a movie: he’ll pop a champagne cork, she’ll buy some bananas, they’ll like Al Green. While you can appreciate that Streep and Jones are the focus here, as opposed to playing parents or employers of younger types, they end up in the same place as those younger types.