Very little skin is on display in Hope Springs, the romantic comedy starring Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell that opens Aug. 10. But if you combine this sweet, thought-provoking movie with a nice dinner, some tender affection and three little words, take it from Mike, you have an excellent chance of getting lucky afterward. That's plenty of reason right there to see the film, but there are several others.
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Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) are Omaha empty-nesters who sleep in separate bedrooms and can't recall the last time they had sex. Kay drags her reluctant husband to see a prominent marital therapist, Dr. Feld (Carell), who portrays sex therapy remarkably realistically (which means — fair warning — without a single funny line).
Hope Springs is a cinematic breakthrough. It's the first film I know of that addresses the sexuality of older couples head-on. (I'm ruling out Something's Gotta Give as too farcical.) In the case of Hope Springs, Kay and Arnold's sexuality has subsided below a slow burn: They're marooned in a sexless marriage, a condition by no means unusual in this country. According to the landmark Sex in America survey, about 2 percent of married adults never have sex, and 12 percent are sexual only a few times a year. For argument's sake, let's say that means 5 percent of couples do it never or almost never. That's 1 couple in 20, so pretty much every older adult knows people in a sexless (or nearly so) relationship.
Kay and Arnold love each other, but they've forgotten how to show it. Kay's longing for renewed intimacy — both physical and emotional — is achingly poignant. Arnold's reluctance to rock the boat of celibacy likewise rings true, as do the embarrassments and resentments both partners eventually express in therapy. The script maintains a light touch. At the same time, Hope Springs clearly shows what it's like to fall deep into a marital rut and the difficulties of climbing out.
Speaking of those difficulties, many long-term couples never transcend their inertia because they have no idea how to raise the issue. Therapy is an option, sure, but one beauty of Hope Springs is that it starts the discussion for you. Rather than summoning the courage to say, "I'm dissatisfied" — words that are impossible for many people to utter — it's much easier to use the movie's warm afterglow to ask your partner, "So, do you think any of that applies to us?"
One reason dissatisfied couples remain mum is that the spouses fear they're not sufficiently articulate to air their gripes in ways that are both honest and graceful. Which brings me to a second beauty of Hope Springs: It shows you needn't be a professor of rhetoric to work on your relationship. Neither Kay nor Arnold would win any awards for emotional intelligence, but with Feld's help, they try to get through to each other. And that's what it's all about: trying. Even when you bumble, trying shows your spouse that you care.
Like gardens, relationships require constant tending. If a garden gets neglected and overgrown, pruning can help — but it must be done with kindness and caring. In a neglected relationship, by the same token, almost any discussion helps — as long as you make it clear you care.
Does this make Hope Springs just a case study for therapists-in-training? Not at all: It's a delightful comedy with several laugh-out-loud scenes. I saw it at a screening attended by 200 people who had responded to an AARP email offer of free tickets. Many of them howled. Repeatedly. At times the laughter was only nervous tittering; if couples counseling is a bitter pill, however, Hope Springs applies a honey coating that makes it easy to swallow.
In sexless or near-sexless marriages, sometimes the woman wants things to change; at other times it's the man. But if Arnold had dragged Kay to therapy, it would have been too easy to dismiss him as just another horny old goat looking to get laid. With the prim, prudish Kay spurring the action, by contrast, these characters become an Everycouple yearning for a more fulfilling relationship both in and out of bed. As I watched the audience exit the theater, I saw a good bit of gray-haired snuggling — and got the distinct impression that many filmgoers were headed home to do much more than talk.
Also of interest: Sex after 65 linked to happiness.
Longtime sexuality journalist Michael Castleman answers sex questions for free at GreatSexAfter40.com.