Hope Springs B-
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones make a strong team in the weak but well-intentioned “Hope Springs,” directed by David Frankel.
Frankel had previously made with Streep the far better and more enjoyable film, “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), for which she received an Oscar nomination.
Streep and Jones play Kay and Arnold, married for thirty-one years—very unhappily so. They sleep in separate rooms in their big Omaha, Nebraska, home and never have any sex, haven’t in years. They don’t or won’t even touch each other.
Their daily lives are meanwhile that endless routine: Arnold still works, and Kay’s still pretty much a subservient, old-school wife. She cooks all his meals and wakes him up every night when he falls asleep in front of the television watching golf programs. Every day is the same—every week, every month, every year.
A lot goes unexplained in Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay, including why Kay suddenly starts to have a sexual awakening—rather, an awakening that she would like to have a sexual awakening. Arnold’s oblivious to Kay’s long suffering and the changes she’s experiencing inside; he’s pretty much dead to himself as well.
When Kay runs across the book “You Can Have the Marriage You Want” by Dr. Bernie Feld (a stiff, restrained Steve Carell), she resolves to take Arnold with her to Great Hope Springs, Maine, for a week of “intensive couples counseling”—face time with the Doc.
It’s intensive and intense, at least for a couple that basically can’t talk about anything. Feld insists that they have to “break the nose to fix it”—not easy for the confrontation-averse Kay and Arnold.
As the couple undergoes session after session—most of this talky movie takes place in Feld’s office—it gradually becomes apparent that the couple never had much of a sex life to begin with. The film’s conceit is that Kay and Arnold, who obviously came of age in the sexual revolution, somehow escaped the world around them and remained almost insanely repressed their entire lives until now. (Conveniently, they’re from Nebraska, since it probably would’ve been difficult for audiences to buy a couple like this as being from New York or Los Angeles or any major metropolis.)
When the couple finally reaches its breakthrough, after many fits and starts, they do so without ever having to face the real reasons their married life’s dysfunctional—the real reasons that are completely missing from this movie and would’ve made it more substantial. Arnold literally can’t keep an erection when he looks his wife in the face, and then suddenly he can. Why was he so blocked? What did he heal inside himself and how? The oddly evasive “Hope Springs” doesn’t take any of this up.
In other words, this is a pro-therapy movie without much genuine therapy being depicted. What the film offers in its place are Feld’s many exercises for the couple to attempt to increase intimacy. These are supposed to deliver laughs, but they’re mostly sad laughs. Kay and Arnold seem perpetually humiliated by the entire situation and each other.
Make no mistake, Streep and Jones are on their game as always, delivering resonant, moving performances. But this movie ultimately doesn’t ring true. How about the scene where Kay, angered at Arnold’s noncooperation, runs off to a local bar, meets a kindly woman bartender (an underused Elisabeth Shue), and immediately spills the beans on everything she’s been going through—with a bar full of men listening in? Then there’s the blow-job-in-a-movie-theater scene, and the “Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man” scene, and other half-baked ideas that the screenplay toys with but doesn’t fully commit to.
This film admirably addresses the important issues of intimacy and sexuality among seniors but does so in a hesitant manner. At one point, Kay bemoans, “I might be less lonely if I were alone.” But every time “Hope Springs” gets close to such real pathos, it turns and runs off down the street, like Kay from Arnold or Arnold from Kay. It’s as if the film itself had intimacy issues.
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