It’s an ugly truth: so many marriages ferment into shams, particularly as the couples that enter into them pass out of the luster of youth and into shriveled old age, realizing that their scraggly loins no longer burn with desire for their partners. In Hope Springs, Kay Soames (Meryl Streep) is determined that her marriage to her husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) isn’t going to become one more connubial geriatric case. To try to get the marital juices flowing again, Kay purchases a getaway package to a small village where marriage counselor Bernie Fields (Steve Carrell) is in residence.
The fantastic performances from the trio of lead actors almost makes you forget that Hope Springs is just one more formulaic romantic comedy. It has all the elements: unimaginative, threadbare dialogue; role stereotyping (Arnold as the cantankerous old fart; Kay as the flighty, post-menopausal bag; and Carell as the patient, sensitive marriage counselor); and a vacation where two people try to rekindle an ailing relationship.
As with many talented actors, much of the strength of Jones’s and Streep’s portrayals lies in their body language. Arnold shuffles down to the kitchen where Kay is preparing him his usual breakfast of bacon and eggs to tide him over for another dreary day at the accounting firm where he works. Kay may look stony-faced but her glazed eyes can’t completely hide the distress she feels at her humdrum housewife routine and unfulfilling job as a Coldwater Creek saleswoman. Their night routine is even more depressing for Kay, who twinkles her eyes expectantly as she peeps in Arnold’s room, tossing out hanky-panky hints (the two have slept apart since Arnold’s convalescence from an injury a few years back). At first, Arnold’s response to Kay’s overtures is one of bemusement but transforms into apprehension as he realizes Kay’s intentions and stutters incoherent excuses.
Carell also proves he’s a versatile veteran of the rom-com genre, making a 360-degree turn from the helpless, sexually frustrated dweebs he played in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Now he’s the expert, a talk therapy pro who rakes in dough by supposedly showing his clients that discussing erotic fantasies and performing a 12-step program of daily sexual exercises are the key to rediscovering what drew a man and a woman to marriage in the first place.
Alas, it’s also the key to why the film lacks credibility. It’s impressive that Carell is able to extract any emotion at all from the lizard-like Dr. Ruth clone whose shoes he’s asked to fill. Frankly, I think I can perfectly sympathize with Arnold, who fidgets nervously on his sofa seat and sometimes hurls angry insults in response to Dr. Bernie’s probing personal questions about his sex life. The truth is, good sex should be only a symptom of a happy marriage, but in typical Hollywood fashion, it’s treated as the be-all and end-all. Sex is to movies what talk therapy is to relationships—a needless money-making scam. The sad thing is, the duped American public has bought into the idea that sex is the principal impetus for a successful marriage. “Just get the old wang working today by taking this new ED drug, and your life will be so much more fulfilling!”
Yet despite the silly dwelling on the physical nature of relationships, there are moments of real poignancy in Hope Springs. My favorite scene is the candlelit dinner for two at a quaint hotel that Arnold treats Kay to—this after his nonstop grumbling about the price of diner food. Another is the scene in the hotel room where the couple is staying, as they maladroitly wrap their arms around one another in performing Dr. Bernie’s hugging exercise, showing us how easy it is to forget how to do anything physical if we don’t practice it.
From such scenes, we certainly get the impression that Kay’s and Arnold’s marriage is, at its core, a good one. As Bernie says, “Most couples come to see me either to save their marriage or end it,” and he assures them that their marriage is not in the latter category. We just need a bit more substance showing us why this is the case. The sympathetic acting almost tricked me into siding with director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me) but not quite. It’s good to see Streep breathe some life into a character after lackluster showings in Doubt and The Hours. Just as it is to see Tommy Lee Jones take time out from his heavy drama roles like the sheriff in No Country for Old Men.
The truth is, though, good acting might be able to bump a film up a notch or two on the grading scale, but it can’t save it from a pedestrian formula. All in all, Hope Springs is enjoyable but forgettable, perfectly adequate for tugging on the heart strings a few times but leaving you wondering why the depiction of romance in the movies hasn’t aged well.
Joe’s Grade: B-