NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Kristen K.
On the eve of their 31st anniversary in Omaha, Nebraska, Kay Soames (Meryl Streep) attempts to sleep with her husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). He complains of his sleep apnea, and she sadly goes back to her bedroom, where she has slept alone for years.
The next morning she fixes his usual breakfast: one piece of bacon and one fried egg. She watches him sadly as he eats and reads his paper. He doesn’t look at her, speak to her, touch her. Then he grabs his briefcase and marches out the door, barking “Six o’ clock." She says “For our anniversary, I’m making prime rib....” He's not listening. The door slams behind him.
That night, their adult children join them for their 31st anniversary. When asked what did he give her for a present, she replies “We got a cable upgrade. It’s a lot of channels.” They smile politely. Later, we see Arnold has fallen asleep in his barcalounger, as a golf instruction show plays on TV. She wakes him up, and they walk upstairs and go into their separate bedrooms.
At her job at Coldwater Creek, she asks her co-worker Eileen (Jean Smart) “Do you think a marriage can be improved?” Her friend thinks they never change. During her lunch hour, Kim goes to a bookstore and finds a book on how to improve her marriage by Dr. Bernie Feld. We see the doctor’s photo on the back (Steve Carell). We then see her eating her lunch in her car and reading the book.
The next morning she announces that she has cashed in a CD of hers and paid $4000 for a weeklong marriage intensive in Maine with Dr. Bernie Feld. She hopes he will come with her, but if not, she will go alone. He is astonished and blusters loudly that there is nothing wrong with their marriage, and there is no need to waste so much money. (Arnold, an accountant, is obsessed with money.)
Later at work he meets his co-worker in the restroom, who tells him that when his wife started complaining about their marriage, he punished her by staying out late and not calling her. “You see how well that worked out. If I had to do it again, it would be all flowers and sweet talk and ‘yes, dear.' Then I wouldn’t be living in a condo.” Arnold thinks this over.
The next morning Kay wheels her suitcase out to the cab. She looks back toward the house. Inside Arnold is eating his breakfast and reading his paper. She goes off in the cab. Later she settles into her plane seat. At the last minute, here comes Arnold. “I hope you’re happy,” he says brusquely as he plops into the seat next to her. She smiles.
She is charmed by the little seaside New England town, but Arnold never stops complaining, about the lack of cellphone service, the expense of the diner....everything.
She bears it all quietly. She indicates that he can share the double bed with her -- he goes into next room and opens up the chair that pulls out into a small bed.
They go for their first session with Dr. Feld. Arnold and Kay sit on opposite ends of the couch. She says she wants a “real marriage” again. Arnold insists there is nothing wrong with their marriage; what do you expect after 31 years?
At lunch in the diner, they see at the next table a couple they’ve seen coming out of Dr. Feld’s. They are very lovey-dovey. They say they come every year to see Dr. Feld for “a tune-up." Kay looks enviously at them. Arnold says THEY will never be coming back again! After lunch, he insists they buy food at the market which they can eat cheaply at their Econolodge room. He buys bologna and limberger cheese. Kay is clearly not pleased, but doesn’t say anything.
In their afternoon session, more truths about the marriage come out. They have not had sex in five years. She misses him touching her -- just touching her and not wanting “it." He says she made it clear long ago she didn’t want to be touched. Dr. Feld gives them an exercise for that night: to just hold each other.
That night he awkwardly climbs into the bed with her and they clumsily clash as they try to put their arms around each other. In the morning, Kay awakens to find her husband, still asleep, spooning her with his arm over her. She smiles.
That morning at Dr. Feld’s they sit beside each other on the couch, giggling and happy. They say it was comfortable sleeping like that. But as Dr. Feld probes, more uncomfortable truths come out about how cold their marriage has become and how they don’t communicate in any way anymore.
He asks them “Do you have fantasies?” Kay seems confused by the question.
“I have a fantasy of us renewing our vows on a beach, with our kids there.” He clarifies “sexual fantasies.” She says no, not now. She doesn’t see the point in stirring things up when there is no chance for it to ever happen. She used to have fantasies about sexual things she and Arnold had done together.
Arnold says he has had fantasies about a 3-way with Carol, the lady across the street. “Carol with the corgies!?” Kay asks, shocked. He just nods and looks dreamy and smiles.
The therapist gives them an assignment to stroke one another, nonsexually. Arnold makes some comment and Kay gets upset and leaves the session. He follows and calls to her, but she ignores him and continues walking away. She goes to a fisherman’s bar, and he goes to the little maritime museum. She has a glass of white wine and confesses to the lady bartender (Elizabeth Shue) that she hasn’t had sex in 5 years. Bartender laughs and says “Who in here isn’t having sex?” Gradually every person in the bar raises their hand. Kay laughs and has another glass of wine.
In the evening, she comes back to their motel room and marches into the bathroom, saying “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.” Arnold tries to not show his upset. He asks “Did you want to do that thing the doctor said? 'Cause if you don’t, I don’t want to.” She says yes, let’s do it. They both get on the bed, he in pants and shirt, she in nightgown. He holds his hand out, but is clearly uncomfortable with the idea of touching her. She says “I’ll start." Stretching out one trembling hand, she begins to stroke his chest in a regular rhythm. “How does that feel?” “Like petting a dog.” She tries something else. He is jumpy and irritable and uncomfortable with the whole thing. She moves down to the end of the bed and rubs his feet, then up his legs. When she starts kneading the inside of his thighs, he gets very uncomfortable and jumps up and retreats to his pullout bed. Alone in bed, Kay pleasures herself. Arnold listens in the adjoining room.
The next morning they are embarrassed about this incident when the doctor questions them. He reassures them that many couples have trouble reestablishing closeness. Kay says she doesn’t think he finds her attractive anymore. Arnold says “No, you’re fine.” The doctor asks if he has trouble functioning, has he tried Viagra? Arnold brusquely says “Everything works fine!” Arnold says he has never cheated on her, doesn’t he get credit for that? He just shut down sexually, because that’s what he had to do. And now that it’s shut down, it’s shut down for good.
Kay reveals she was never comfortable with the idea of oral sex (either giving or receiving). He would have liked it but “there was no point in trying. You heard her.” It is clear she is very prim and somewhat repressed, and he has retreated into his shell, unwilling to make a move and be rebuffed again.
Dr. Feld talks to them separately, and they are more revealing. Kay says Arnold is her whole world. She really doesn’t want to leave him, but thinks being lonely alone would be more bearable than being lonely in a marriage.
He writes Kay a prescription. Next we see her in a bookstore, looking around in embarrassment for a book. The young clerk keeps asking if he can find it for her. Shakily, she holds out the prescription. “The Straight Woman’s Guide to Sex from a Gay Man.” “Oh, we keep that under the counter here. Dr. Bernie makes sure we keep it in stock.” She goes to the market and among other things, buys a couple bananas.
That night they go to the movies. Arnold is astonished when his wife gets down on the floor in front of him and unzips him. He starts to protest, then goes along with it and begins to enjoy it. But he has to tell her “go easy with the teeth." But it’s no good. It’s too cramped. They are worried about people seeing them. She bumps her head, knocks the popcorn all over the place. They quickly leave.
Back in their room the next morning, she is packing her suitcase and tells them Dr. Feld will give them a refund. “How much?” he asks. “50%” she says. Cut to them on the couch at therapist’s. The doctor says he is glad they decided to stay.
He asks them how they met. Kay says she was taking an accounting course in college, and he was the student assistant, and he tutored her. She liked him right away. Dr. Feld asks Arnold what he thought of Kay. “She was pretty. I just thought she was pretty. And that she shouldn’t be majoring in accounting.”
Kay says she is tired of anniversary gifts “for the house." “A water heater! What kind of a romantic gift is that? More cable TV channels! I don’t care about that. And I hate golf -- and watching a golf teacher is stupid!” She also is hurt that he always shut his eyes when making love -- she thinks it is because he doesn’t find her attractive anymore. She has always found him attractive.
Dr. Feld asks Arnold if he has a good sexual memory. He describes that when she was quite pregnant, he found her stirring soup in the kitchen. “She looked so good. With that little apron barely covering her belly. I had her down on that floor, and she soon forgot all about that soup! I just wanted her so bad.” His eyes glow with the memory. Kay looks surprised and moved by this story.
That afternoon, Arnold is facing off with the headwaiter of the fancy restaurant at the nicest inn in town. Headwaiter insists they have no tables available for that night. “Well, I’m just gonna stand right here till you give me one.”
Later, Kay in a pretty lavender dress is sitting in the bathroom reading the sex book, eyes widened. She peels a banana -- then takes a bite, as she reads on, amazed. Arnold knocks at the door, says they don’t want to lose their reservation. Hastily she dumps the book and bananas into the trash can and comes out. He tells her that she looks pretty, and she says he’s pretty handsome himself.
At the restaurant, she is overjoyed at the elegant surroundings and the wonderful meal. They talk and drink wine and laugh a lot. They joke about how the very proper doctor probably talks to his wife: “Well Mildred, it appears you are naked. How do you feel about that?”
He tells her, somewhat nervously, that he has gotten them a room upstairs. They go up to the room, where they are shy and awkward with each other. She kneels in front of him by the fireplace and starts to unbuckle his belt, and he darts across the room to start the music. “Let’s Stay Together” plays. They kiss and get down on the floor and begin to make love. In the midst of it, she notices his eyes are closed tight, as usual. She puts her hands on either side of his face and whispers “Please -- look at me.” He does -- and then stops. They are both disappointed and can’t look at each other.
The next morning, they are packing up the car to leave, and we hear the doctor’s voiceover telling them that some couples who come to him should never have gotten married in the first place -- but they are not one of those. He’s giving them the name of a good therapist in their hometown, and recommends Arnold get sleep apnea treatment.
Back at the house, it’s back to the same silent routine. One egg, one bacon, barking what time he’ll be home and out the door. At Coldwater Creek, she asks her friend if she can take care of her cat while she’s away -- in fact, can she stay a night or two...or more? Her friend looks at her, understanding, and says “Sure.”
Kay packs her suitcase. Arnold watches from door. They go to their separate bedrooms, where each lies awake. Finally, Arnold knocks at her door, comes in and sits on her bed. “Kay...” he begins. He isn’t able to go on. She throws her arms around him, kisses him and they make love. The next morning, it’s the same routine. He takes his briefcase and goes out the door and slams it. She stands in the kitchen looking after him. Suddenly the door opens, and he runs back inside, grabs her, kisses her passionately, hoisting her up onto the sink. After a long kiss, he staggers back outside. She sees he’s forgotten his briefcase and takes it out to him. They have another long kiss.
“Hello, you two! How was the vacation?” They look across the street. It is their attractive neighbor Carol (Mimi Rogers) walking her corgies. Kay invites her over for drinks that night. Arnold raises his eyebrow. Kay says “It’s never gonna happen” and they laugh and kiss again.
As the credits roll, we see them renewing their vows on the beach, Dr. Feld officiating. Their children and Mrs. Feld are present. They make vows that come out of their therapy. She promises to watch more golf, he promises to buy her romantic presents on their anniversary. Everyone is happy.