I'm pretty sure Tommy Lee Jones was born crotchety and bitter. He must have emerged from the womb with a snide remark about the lighting and a dry, sarcastic comeback after the doctor announced "It's a boy!"
Sixty-five years later, Jones is so crusty that ham sandwiches ask that his crust be cut off rather than the other way around. That's why he's an excellent fit for Arnold, the distant, emotionless robo-husband bound by contract to Kay (Meryl Streep), a little old lady who still has enough spunk in her to make the unpeeling of a banana look naughty.
Unhappy with their stale, withered marriage -- they sleep in separate rooms and keep their own bank accounts, which they use to buy each other anniversary gifts such as refrigerators and hot water heaters -- she cashes out a CD and kidnaps, uh, old-man-naps him away to a costly "intensive" couples therapy session in Maine. Things have gotten so dull for Arnold and Kay that when they're filling out applications that ask them to fill out a space under "sex," they write "Not since the Bush administration," unsure which exact Bush administration it was when they last got it on.
Tasked with leading the archaeological excavation designed to discover some trace of what the couple once found attractive in one another is Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), whose clinical approach to matters of the heart would be creepy if he didn't seem to get a little sad at the responses his clients give him.
Carell tones down his silliness to trace levels, allowing the master actors to take control, battering each other with barbs both verbal and unspoken. There are layers to both characters that both Jones and Streep take pleasure in peeling back. Streep is at once a sullen, downtrodden gramma and a pot of simmering rage and resentment. Jones, who spits out raspy, condescending one-liners like sunflower seeds, guards a well of regret, timidity and indecision beneath his hermit crab-like shell.
Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) tells his story with patience and a steady hand, unafraid to let his characters mope in silence for uncomfortably long periods or to keep the camera focused regretfully on seats abandoned in hissy fits. You kinda know, or at least hope, the couple will work out their problems and rekindle their spark, but until it happens you just feel sad. Especially when the lovers-turned-frenemies find flickers of their long lost affection before letting them slip away in the dark once again.
It's frighteningly easy to look at the characters and see your grandparents. Or your parents. Or yourself. After all, no one sets out to become the old, bickering married couple. Only the lucky ones make it that far.
Starring Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell and Jean Smart. Written by Vanessa Taylor. Directed by David Frankel. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13.
My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.