Film Review: Hope Springs

And now for something completely different: a thoughtful yet funny movie about how difficult it is for a married couple to maintain a close and sexy bond over the long haul.

The problem in Kay and Arnold’s 31-year marriage is apparent from the opening scene. Kay (Meryl Streep) nervously primps in front of a mirror, adjusting the straps of her sexy blue nightgown and fluffing up her hair before she opens a door to find her husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) lying in bed reading a golf magazine. When he wonders aloud why she’s in his bedroom, she mumbles something about hoping to spend the night with him. After an awkward moment when he comes up with some lame excuse to reject his wife’s offer, she nods understandingly and goes back to her own room—there to lie in bed and think. This is not how a marriage is supposed to be: Kay and Arnie have not slept together in over five years, he doesn’t even touch her anymore and they rarely talk to each other.

Hope Springs could have veered off to become a rather broad and predictable romantic comedy for aging baby-boomers—a movie full of funny platitudes about the need to “work” on relationships, with the husband always resisting and the wife insisting. Actually, that pretty much summarizes what happens to Kay and Arnold, but somehow the film they’re in manages to rise far above its formulaic premise to become an adult love story that’s so uniquely real and touching it can sometimes take your breath away. Credit for this must go, of course, to director David Frankel and his three amazing stars, Ms. Streep, Mr. Jones and Steve Carrell—who plays Dr. Feld, a well-known marriage consultant and sex therapist who ultimately coaxes the shy Kay and the prickly Arnold to confront their broken sex life—and learn how to fix it.

At first, though, Arnold is totally unaware aware that his life with Kay has fallen into a deadly routine—breakfast and dinner at home; work in between; evenings watching TV golf; Sunday dinners with their grown kids and their families. To him, a marriage is successful if it lasts a long time, period. Arnold is aghast when Kay hands him an airline ticket and says she has already paid for a week of “couples counseling” with Dr. Feld in a place called Great Hope Springs, Maine. Arnie harrumphs around, vowing he’ll never darken the door of any therapist. But, at the last minute, after watching his wife stubbornly take off alone, he grumpily decides he’d better go too.

Jones’ ultra-sensitive performance is the true revelation here. The actor’s curmudgeonly side has been well-mined in other films, but we’ve never seen him undergo such a difficult and painful emotional transition—from the gruff, closed-off cynic to an enthusiastic friend and empathetic lover. In mid-therapy, when the doctor asks Arnold to describe the best sex he ever had with his wife, Jones’ face visibly softens as he remembers and then relives the joy of that long-ago moment when he and Kay spontaneously made love on their kitchen floor.

And what of Streep? Everybody knows by now that acting-wise, she can do anything—but it’s been a while (probably since The Bridges of Madison County) that she’s had a chance to be this vulnerable and needy. But when this sad and lonely housewife summons the strength to take back her marriage—well then! She’s willing to risk anything to get what she wants. Streep’s natural sense of humor comes through too, and she’s especially delicious as she tries to obey Dr. Feld’s instructions by surprising her husband with a new (for her) sex trick at a movie theatre—or when she unthinkingly takes a bite out of the banana she’s supposed to be “practicing” on. Yes, there are some wonderfully frank and funny moments in Hope Springs, and in less capable hands these moments might have proven embarrassing, if not shocking to watch.

Strangely enough, Steve Carell (who has created more than a few comically brilliant characters) plays it absolutely straight in this one, letting his innate intelligence and basic sweetness shine through—even when he’s asking Kay and Arnold the most outrageous personal questions, or giving them the kinkiest homework assignments.

It would be understandable if Hope Springs makes some young viewers cringe, as they picture their sixty-ish parents or grandparents romping around the bedroom or kitchen or wherever. And they might scoff at the relative sexual innocence of an older generation. But viewers who can relax and go with the shenanigans in this delightful and insightful movie may come away with a new understanding of what intimacy is all about.