Hollywood has decided to invest once more in a movie specifically aimed at baby boomers. After the considerable successes of Something's Gotta Give (2003), The Bucket List (2007), and this year's long-running box office hit, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Hope Springs, now in theaters, addresses another topic that is very much of concern for this aging generation: How does one maintain a decades-old marriage, including a decent sex life, when mutual attraction can no longer be taken for granted?
For those who haven't seen the movie (yet), here's a brief synopsis: Like many empty-nesters, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have settled into a comfortable but mind-numbing, soul-destroying routine. He goes to work every morning as an accountant, albeit with retirement plans not far off. She takes care of the house and earns a little extra money from a part-time job in a clothing store. While he's resigned to the status quo, she wants more, in fact, she wants a different life that includes a loving relationship and -- if it's not too much to ask -- a little action in the bedroom. Seeking the help of a marriage counselor seems the only way to salvage whatever is left of their former bliss.
Talking (let alone making a film) about intimacy between older people has never been easy in our youth-oriented culture. This may be changing now in response to demographic shifts. But timeliness alone will not guarantee that a truly meaningful conversation can take place.
The way we deal with the subject of sex at the later stages in life is almost exclusively focused on issues like erectile dysfunction and other unfortunate effects of the natural aging process. Performance-enhancing drugs like Viagra and Cialis may sell better than almost any other pharmaceutical product on the planet, they offer a purely mechanical solution. What they can't do is to help preserve a satisfying relationship with a partner who has seemingly been around forever and offers little hope for many more surprises. Even if the desired effect kicks in every time, the ability to perform in bed is not the same as making love.
Like many couples whose marriage has come to a crossroad, Kay and Arnold take stock of all their unmet needs and expectations. Being sexually unfulfilled, although initially high on the list of their mutual misgivings, turns out only to be a symptom of a far deeper disconnect. Soon they have to realize that the deterioration of their relationship is not caused by a poor sex life, but rather the other way around. There is no love to express because there is no love to be had. Instead, an empty space is widening between them -- symbolized by separate schedules, separate interests, separate bedrooms -- and by the time they can no longer ignore it, they are unable to bridge it.
It is a strength of the movie to show how a 'Me First' attitude, common among but not limited to baby boomers, leaves us terribly unequipped to deal with these kinds of problems. Bookstores and websites overflow with professional guidance and self-help materials, but divorce rates remain high and more people are now single than married. The filmmakers were too smart to try giving any definite answers themselves. One thing, however, becomes clear: Love is still a matter of giving over taking, creation over expectation, dialogue over demand. In a way, we are warned not to expect too much and yet make the most of what we have. Not bad advice from a simple boomer flick.
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