"Sexercise," says gentle-voiced marriage counselor Steve Carell.
Or maybe he's saying, "This exercise." It's hard to tell. I saw too many punk rock bands in the '80s and my ears still ring sometimes.
But I'm going to go with sexercise because it's what Carell might as well be telling Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones to go off and commit. Every single homework activity he gives them in this movie-length therapy session, one aimed at salvaging a lifeless 31-year-old marriage, involves rubbing, touching, stroking and other naked-time gymnastics that push the limits of PG-13. In case you had any doubt about what sort of movie you're going to experience, understand that a good chunk of it involves discovering that Jones's character has sensitive nipples and can't look his own wife in the face during sex. Then you'll learn that Streep is still bold and game enough an actor to massage Jones' crotch with the camera aimed straight between his legs, to simulate self-pleasure, and to perform an action that can only be described as The Full Alanis Morissette. That's right, ladies over 50, it's the first mainstream American movie since Adam Sandler's You Don't Mess with the Zohan to take your orgasm seriously. And "seriously" isn't exactly a word you'd use to describe the older-woman-on-Adam-Sandler sex depicted in You Don't Mess with the Zohan. And anyway, you didn't see You Don't Mess with the Zohan.
Does that mean that if you're not a woman of a certain age in a sexless marriage that you shouldn't bother seeing it? Yes, but only if you're one of those knuckleheads who believes that you can't learn anything from watching people unlike yourself go through their own private agonies. It also means that this isn't quite the comedy the marketers are selling. In fact, they're pretty much lying to your face on that one. This is a forward-thinking drama with comedic moments, not the other way around, the kind that's going to provoke a lot of discussion among any couple in a long-term relationship.
Carell hangs back here and, as he recedes, the movie allows Jones and Streep the space to exorcise their emotions while jump-starting their hibernating physicality. The camera stays in the therapist's office for long stretches of time as the unusually paced action focuses on the two talented, old-school actors talking it out and working off of one another in an often painful story about what happens when love breaks down late in life.
The irritations are few: Don't expect too much in the way of gloom or intensity. That's for Europe and Cassavetes. It's got the same vanilla atmosphere of films like It's Complicated, Music of the Heart and Mamma Mia!, comfy projects Streep seems to enjoy occasionally wrapping herself in so that she can then rise above them. And she occasionally lapses into that "ooohing" and "ohhhhhing" Saturday Night Live parody of herself, while Jones indulges in moments that feel one cranky complaint away from turning into a reboot of Grumpy Old Men.
Most of the time, though, this pairing works like a very sad, well-oiled machine. When her eyes well up and he sighs, lost and too proud to ask for directions, you may feel like crying yourself. When they abandon their separate bedrooms and awkwardly try to hold one another in bed, it'll push the empathy buttons in every person who ever wondered where all four arms are supposed to go so nobody's limbs fall asleep after five minutes. And when Jones plants one on Streep in their kitchen you'll wonder why the music supervisor didn't cue up an R. Kelly slow jam for the occasion. A missed opportunity, really, because the man already wrote a song about kitchen sex, full of references to innuendo-based food like tomatoes and buttered rolls.
But I guess that kind of thing is really Sandler's to run with.