Hope Springs (2012)

Rating:

A Romance for Grown-Ups

Main Cast: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell

Director: David Frankel

I wholeheartedly approve of romances with lead characters over 30.  Or 40.  Or 50.  As the Baby Boomers age, there is an ever-larger audience for movies with leads of a certain age.  Hope Springs takes full advantage of not only that audience but also the amazing over-50 talent actively working in Hollywood for perhaps the first time.  Who can resist Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in anything?  I know I can’t.

Hope Springs is the story of a marriage.  Not a shiny new marriage, but one that has seen 31 years of good times and bad, children raised and routines developed.  31 years is a long time – sometimes people forget how to be a couple and turn into strangers.  That’s exactly what has happened to Kay (Streep) and   Arnold (Jones).  They sleep in separate rooms (more comfortable for his back), have completely separate routines and have so few points of connection that it’s as if they each live alone in the house they’ve shared for years.

Kay is desperately unhappy about the situation and signs the couple up for a week of intensive marriage counseling in a remote little town in Maine.  Arnold strenuously objects – he sees nothing wrong with their life.  The movie follows Arnold and Kay to Maine and into the deeply awkward realms of fixing a relationship that has become completely sterile.

Hope Springs addresses a very real problem.  Anyone who has been married for more than 5 minutes knows that it takes work to keep it all together.  Just because a couple has aged together does not mean they have maintained any sort of intimacy.  And a long marriage doesn’t mean a happy marriage.  As we watch Kay and Arnold struggle with even the smallest forms of physical affection, it’s clear that this couple has grown so far apart that they need to start nearly from scratch.

Streep and Jones are excellent as the unhappy Kay and the grumpy old man Arnold.  The problem is that they seem to exist in a warped world – one where a woman in her 50s is wearing panty hose and housedresses and fixing the same breakfast for her taciturn husband each day.  I don’t know anyone like that anymore – it’s as if director David Frankel is making a period piece set in the 1950s…but he isn’t.  The incongruence between Kay as a modern woman with a job and the gumption to sign herself and her husband up for a week of therapy and the dowdy role she plays in her own life is jarring.  Perhaps the filmmakers figured that people are still like that in the Midwest (Kay and Arnold live in Omaha).  They figured wrong.  This misstep seriously detracts from the tone of the film – making it almost into parody of this hapless couple living in the past.

The actual therapy portion of the film is sweet and sad and funny.  Steve Carell is Dr. Feld and he plays his role as a very soft-spoken, honest and open therapist absolutely straight.  There is no silliness whatsoever in this role and Carell handles it well, but I think I would have had an easier time with another actor in the part – I kept expecting him to do something.  Anything.  But he didn’t – his character is bland and laid back.  It’s not a bad character; it’s just not really much of a character at all.  Anyone could have played Dr. Feld.  As Arnold and Kay open up about their marriage and the turns it has taken, they are so vulnerable it’s almost hard to watch.  Veterans Streep and Jones make the most of these moments, easing the tension without losing the emotional resonance.

The basic story ends up playing out as a cliché, for the most part.  There aren’t really any surprises in how things end up, but the movie is more about the journey and the awakening of this couple to how far they’ve strayed from their early relationship.  In that sense it works.  Overall, the great performances from Streep and Jones probably save Hope Springs from being ridiculous.  Despite the unrealistic set-up, the actors bring life to the story of this marriage and the things they need to do to fix it.  The Maine setting is quaint and sweet and the couple fits in despite being anachronisms from another era.  Recommended for audiences over 40 and fans of the stars.  3 stars out of 5.

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