“I want a real marriage again.” With those words—in the new dramedy Hope Springs—Meryl Streep’s housewife throws the gauntlet before her husband of thirty-one years, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Despite the film’s title, which sounds suspiciously like a spoiler, hope could well come from these two people freeing themselves a broken union. Can this marriage be saved?
Streep’s Kay Soames believes it can, by roping husband Arnold into a weeklong program at the Center for Intensive Couples Counseling, run by “You Can Have the Marriage You Want” author Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell). Dragged into Great Hope Springs, a quaint Maine fishing village, Omaha accountant Arnold immediately goes on the defensive, shifting gears from terse to out-and-out cranky. Everyone and everything else is the problem, as far as Arnold is concerned, and he’s only come out of fear that Kay would otherwise walk out on him for good. She’s learned to be a little afraid of her husband, or of triggering his displeasure. Though he’s not abusive, his has become a practiced neglect: the couple sleeps in separate rooms, with no more sexual contact than a morning peck on the cheek.
Feld gently forces Kay and Arnold to air and confront their issues, primarily the erosion of communication and the roots of their sexual schism; the doctor also assigns them exercises, or “sexercises,” to reconnect them physically. Though Streep’s active effort to save the marriage is half the battle, sexually frank screenwriter Vanessa Taylor wisely doesn’t absolve her of responsibility for the couple’s doldrums; Kay’s realization of partial culpability gives Streep an opportunity for a subtly painful moment of truth.
The master class in acting put on by Streep and the particularly pitch-perfect Jones is, without question, the big draw here. While Carell, like his character, expertly facilitates, the leads put themselves under the microscope, finding fascinating rhythms in their give-and-takes, and speaking volumes with body language. As a result, Hope Springs turns out to be a different kind of mainstream movie, wielding star power to turn a giant, unsparing mirror on its target audience: in this case, baby boomers in stale marriages.
And so Hope Springs evinces a certain kind of bravery, with its relationship-confrontation subject matter and its consistent refusal to “open up” the story with, say, a subplot involving Carell and his own marriage or, indeed, any subplot at all. Instead, there’s a weirdly riveting intensity—and a palpable sense of privilege—to the way the movie takes us into squirmy private moments and focuses nearly every scene on the sometimes funny, more often sad dynamic between the two lead characters.
Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada)—who inherited the project when Mike Nichols unfortunately departed it—shows a tone-deaf allegiance to intrusive pop music that exacerbates a broader tonal imbalance. A handful of comic flourishes lean toward jokiness at odds with the film’s greater scheme, of dramatic cultivated awkwardness between two people facing hard truths and sexual dysfunction; also, one might well wish for a chink in the armor of Carell’s too-perfect shrink. But the movie’s countercultural commitment to character and performance is enough to give Hope a try.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]