In an age of idiotic garbage overpopulated with alternate realities and toxic avengers in Halloween costumes, I cannot tell you how touching, restorative and vitamin-enriching it is to see a gentle, tender and intelligent film with A-list stars playing real people dealing with real problems in the everyday world. Instead of stupid gags and punchlines, Hope Springs is a character study in elegiac pastels about how people love, then change and eventually drift away from each other—and the daunting energy it takes for them to get their old mojo back while the apple still bites. Separately, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are national treasures, but together they are simultaneously spectacular and intimately awe-inspiring. I have never loved either one more.
They play Kay and Arnold, a middle-class couple from Omaha, wed for 31 years in a union once ignited with spark plugs, now reduced through the curdled habit of uninspired routine to a stale marriage that needs a new transmission. Their two kids are grown and independent; they sleep in different rooms, Arnold spends so much time on the golf course and watching TV sports replays that Kay sighs, “It’s like being married to ESPN.” Her life makes a two-hour bonus episode of Desperate Housewives look like 10 minutes of aerobics. Hard work in the kitchen produces meals consumed quietly by Arnold with nothing more than a grunt before he retires to the den to watch TV before bed. If she dons a frilly nightgown and slips seductively into his bedroom aroused with high expectations, he looks up from his golf magazine and asks “What?” They haven’t had sex since Dr. Phil was born. The big excitement is a subscription to one of those new digital cable deals with all of those extra channels and still nothing worth watching. After three decades of boredom, Kay is, to put it mildly, underappreciated—like Meryl Streep without a fake nose or a foreign accent.
“You marry who you marry—you are who you are—it doesn’t change,” says her friend (Jean Smart) but Kay is tired of constant rejection and terminal ennui. One day at the mall, she dons her reading glasses, browses the “How To” shelves at Barnes and Noble, and buys a book called You Can Have the Marriage You Want, by a relationship expert named Dr. Bernard Feld, who runs a camp for intensive couples counseling in Hope Springs, Maine. Optimistic, she withdraws money from her personal savings, plunks down $4,000 on the Internet, and signs up for a week of therapy. Arnold is so appalled by the cost that he refuses to go, but when the morning of departure arrives and he watches her heading for the airport with her suitcase packed, he relents and grudgingly follows. The rest of the movie shows, carefully and without contrivance, what happens when two decent people risk humiliation and pain to explore their inner feelings long enough to redeem what they’ve sacrificed through age and tedium. She wants to restore lost intimacy to her marriage. He just wants to get his money back and go home. Charm eludes him. Challenged and annoyed by even the price of tuna in a local homespun country café, Arnold is the kind of curmudgeon who has seen entirely too many Woody Allen movies, but as the memories come out in his counseling sessions, his sweetness emerges. (When they fell in love in college, he hid her engagement ring in a cinnamon bun.) Learning to touch again, his awkwardness is slow and tender-hearted and her joy is fragile but palpable.
The pristine beauty and pastoral ambience of the charming coastal Maine village of Hope Springs (played by the whitewashed colonialism of Stonington, Conn.) is a cure for anything that ails you, and by the time Kay and Arnold reach the next step in their homework assignments—to explore their sexual history—the setting has become a relaxing contrast to the embarrassing facts they uncover about orgasms, fantasies and erectile dysfunction. “I was never comfortable with oral sex,” Kay tells Dr. Feld (Steve Carell, underplaying with moderation and compassion). “With giving or receiving?” he counters. The expression on Meryl Streep’s face when she looks astounded and asks, “Huh?” has got to be seen to be enjoyed to the max. Trying at last to revive the horny days of youth, Arnold orchestrates an evening in an elegant colonial inn with champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries that turns poignant when lovemaking wears thin, like an old quilt. Nothing is hackneyed and everything is unpredictable in the assured direction by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) and the intelligent screenplay by Vanessa Taylor, making her feature film debut after writing and producing such above-average TV shows as Game of Thrones and Everwood. The camerawork is clean and captivating without a lot of visual wows, allowing the actors plenty of room to relate in a completely natural style.
They know what they’re doing, but there is no question Hope Springs would not be the revelation it is without two stars of impeccable magnitude. Meryl Streep is her usual reliable self—alert, committed, analytical, making every minute count. But it is really Tommy Lee Jones who surprises and thrills, matching his co-star moment by moment, scene by scene. I’ve never seen him so truly involved. Even in the gruff cactus and sage sagas set in his native Texas, he is never less than mesmerizing. But he seems genuinely inspired partnering an artist with real craft. With exasperated groans, hunched shoulders and graying hair, his Arnold is impatient and irritating, but sensitive and manly, with a total grasp of the nuances of comedy. Amazingly, he looks furtively through the corners of his eyes with a poker face, like a kid caught with his finger in the cherry pie before it reaches the table, and I dare you not to laugh out loud. He hasn’t had a role like this in years, and he is thoroughly flawless.
Without giving anything away, Hope Springs ends with a coda that arrives too abruptly and resolves its loose ends a bit too neatly, but that doesn’t dilute the impact. I think everything about the movie is too subtle and real to appeal to the Batman demographic, but for mature audiences who have forgotten how to smile, it takes up where The Best
Exotic Marigold Hotel left off.
Running Time 100 minutes
Written by Vanessa Taylor
Directed by David Frankel
Starring Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell