Based on the trailers, you probably think you already know what Hope Springs is going to be like: A glossy rom-com about an aging married couple who go to couple’s therapy in a quaint town and slowly—and hilariously—fall back in love.
That’s not completely inaccurate, but the film could also be described thusly: A Bergman-esque meditation on aging, death, and sexuality focusing on the giant chasm that has developed between a joyless married couple.
That second film seems like less of a good time at the ol' multiplex, huh?
Split the difference and you have Hope Springs, which ends up being much smarter and deeper than the trailers would suggest, while still being pretty darn entertaining.
I admit I was on high cliché alert at first: Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married for 35 years—she’s sunny and nurturing; he’s the kind of grouch who is always complaining about being ripped off. They sleep in separate rooms and she wordlessly feeds him the same breakfast (fried egg and bacon) every morning and rouses him from his easy chair after he falls asleep in front of the Golf Channel at night.
Those little bits of character development struck me as pat—Arnold even drives a Buick, a Hollywood screenwriter’s idea of the what they drive in middle America—but I was in for a pleasant surprise.
Kay is feeling unloved, unfulfilled, emotionally and sexually and wants to jumpstart her marriage. (As she heartbreakingly puts it later, she just wants to feel like her marriage—and her life— still have hope.) So she finds out about a famous relationship expert in Maine who does intensive couple's therapy, boldly books two tickets, and insists that Arnold join her. Grudgingly, he does.
For the first therapy session, Kay and Arnold sit on opposite sides of the couch and I thought—oh, just watch, after a few sessions, they’ll be side-by-side. Turns out, the film is smarter than that; it doesn’t offer facile solutions. The progress Kay and Arnold make in communication is gradual and not always satisfying. Amazingly, the film is equally frank about their sexuality. They discuss their fantasies and desires—at first it’s mostly Kay doing the talking, but eventually Arnold opens up, too—and even, in one of the film’s more touching moments, they share their favorite sexual memories of each other. Then Kay acknowledges her fear that Arnold doesn’t desire her anymore.
Outside their sessions, they fumble toward rediscovering each other sexually, again with mixed results. (An attempted sexual adventure in a movie theater goes horribly wrong.)
Yes, Hope Springs is that rarest of creatures: An American film that is frank, funny, and fearless about sex. The fact that it’s sex between two 60somethings is even more of a revelation.
Steve Carell is wasted, mostly, as the therapist. He offers bland bits of wisdom and a nurturing, judgment-free gaze. (This is my least favorite incarnation of Carell: The moist, new Agey, milquetoasty guy we’ve seen in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and Dan in Real Life). I wish his therapist had some sort of inner life of his own. A final scene, on a beach, where he is frolicking with a woman (his wife, perhaps?) suggests that the rest of Carell’s character may have been left on the cutting room floor.
The film, though, really belongs to Streep and Jones. It’s amazing they’ve never worked together before and it’s a treat that they’ve been given such good material to roam around in. Hope Springs is so talky it could actually work as a play—but then you’d miss the close-ups of the actors' gloriously aged (even Jones’s crags have crags) and expressive faces.
Hope Springs should serve as a cautionary tale to younger actors: Don’t get facelifts or Botox. Streep still has her delicate beauty. Jones is still gruffly handsome. And the sum of all human experience, emotion, and desire is contained within their faces.