Director: David Frankel, 2012 (PG-13)
“You Can Have the Marriage You Want.” This is the book that propels the plot in this so-called geriatric romantic comedy. And it is a title that will force us to reflect on our own marriages to reflect on exactly what marriage we really do want.
In this first pairing of Oscar-winners Meryl Streep (The Deer Hunter) and Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), Streep plays Kay who has been married to Arnold (Jones) for 31 years. They are a perfectly normal middle-aged couple whose marriage has frozen into a rut. Gone is the romance of younger years. In its place is routine and relational stagnation.
Every day begins with Kay cooking bacon and eggs for Arnold, who buries his nose in the paper barely acknowledging Kay’s presence. He goes off to work with a peck on the cheek and hardly a word. He returns to find dinner waiting, golf on TV where he falls asleep in his recliner. And then scale the stairs to depart into separate bedrooms. No touch, no hugs, no sex.
Early in the film, one of Kay’s coworkers tells her ”marriages don’t change.” Kay clearly wants more. She is ready to change. But Arnold is satisfied with the status quo, despite the distance that the currents of parenthood, busyness and business have created.
When Kay discovers the book mentioned earlier, she researchers the author, Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell, Date Night). He offers an intensive week-long couple’s counseling session. This takes place in his hometown of Great Hope Springs up in Maine. When Kaye cashes in her own CD to pay the $4000, hope springs in her heart. But tax accountant Arnold, ever a cynical tightwad, complains and refuses to go. But the money is spent, so he decides to make the best of it.
The movie really takes off when the couple take their places on the counselor’s coach. While Carrell plays his role dead-pan, with minimal emotion, Jones and Streep give their characters believable and accessible feelings. She is lonely. He is angry and afraid. We can understand her loneliness, but we never discover why Arnold is so angry and crabby.
Dr Feld quietly challenges them to face each other again, to reflect on what brought them together in the first place. He soon discovers a lack of physical relationship, and begins to give them sexual challenges that escalate from touching to oral sex. There are some awkward scenes in the movie, but what detracts the most is the loud manipulative soundtrack that seeks to flag the emotional mood swings even while the veteran actors are trying to show through their craft.
I imagine all marriages devolve to some degree into routine, perhaps mediocrity, some even into monotony. How do we handle the emotional drifts of time? Frankel’s film seems to offer some solutions. Clearly, sharing our feelings and opening the communication channels is critical. What this does is makes us vulnerable to the other partner.
Without vulnerability, intimacy is impeded or even voided. Arnold was not willing to do this. He was comfortable with his life and had retreated into a shell of his own making, like a hermit crab. That may be what he wants, even what we want, but what does his spouse want?
Kay summarizes her situation to Dr Feld: “He is everything. But I’m, I’m really lonely. And to be with someone when you’re not really with him can … it’s … I think I might be less lonely … alone.” How sad. To be in the same room, even the same relationship, as your life-partner and not really be there at all. Loneliness becomes the dagger that pierces the heart of many a marriage that fails.
How do we disarm this dagger? We practice the art of being present. We determine to take time to talk, and not just about the trivialities of our days. We commit to communicate the depths of our hearts. We vow to make the other more important to us than anything else we might treasure. As Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Make your spouse your most-treasured relationship.
Of course, the film focuses on sex, and sex is indeed an important part of marriage. Both men and women need physical intimacy. When the heart grows cold sex gets old. The Apostle Paul knew this, and gave this advice to married couples, talking about sexual union: “Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5). The Bible also says, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure” (Heb. 13:4). Pure here does not mean absent. Sex was created by God to be enjoyed by married couples and there seems to be no time limit. Age may slow things down and bring on changes but it doesn’t have to bring cessation. That is the path to separation.
As a fully-fledged card-carrying member of AARP, with more than a quarter century of marriage behind me (to the most wonderful wife I can imagine) I find myself putting myself in Arnold’s shoes. No, my wife and I don’t sleep in separate rooms. And we do enjoy the physical dimensions of marriage. But I wonder how vulnerable I am, how much I really share of my inner feelings. Could I give more to my wife and my marriage?
When Arnold is about to give up, Dr Feld challenges him with the question, “Have you given it your best?” How about you? If you haven’t, then what kind of marriage do you really want? The best marriage requires that we give it our best in all areas. When we do this, hope will spring eternal for you.
Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs