A film review by Craig J. Koban September 19, 2012
2012, PG-13, 100 mins.
2012, PG-13, 100 mins.
Kay: Meryl Streep / Arnold: Tommy Lee Jones
/ Dr. Feld: Steve Carell
I were preparing a film acting class then I would make screening HOPE
SPRINGS as a mandatory viewing requirement of the curriculum.
Here’s a film – funny, yes, but also a fairly serious and
somber one at that, considering its egregiously false advertising campaign
– that tackles the complications that befall an aging couple as they
entire the latter stages of their lives when passion and love has all but left
their marriage. At the heart
of it we have two thespian titans, Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, who
are like a dream team pairing if there ever was one; together they reach
new performance heights of raw sincerity and vulnerability that I’ve
never seen out of them before.
Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) have been married for over 30 years. They were once passionately in love, but know that their relationship has hit a very cold dry spell…actually…their relationship has hit an iceberg and is ready to capsize. They are well off, have a beautiful home, and Arnold seems to be financially providing for Kay in satisfying ways, but they are at a dead stop when it comes to intimacy. They have not had sex in nearly five years, sleep in separate beds and bedrooms, and when they do manage to speak to one another in the morning it’s in monosyllabic hellos and goodbyes.
daily routine seems positively robotic: Arnold comes home, eats a largely
conversation-free supper with his wife, falls asleep in his favorite
leather chair watching the Golf channel, and then departs to bed without
Kay. The next morning he
awakes, gets dressed for work, heads to the breakfast table that Kay has
already placed his breakfast (which is precisely made up of one piece of bacon and two eggs sunny
morning), sits down and eats, and then goes to work.
Kay is getting frustrated; she feels less like a wife and more like
a prop in her own home.
still loves Arnold and he reciprocates positively, I guess. They
don’t fight. Yet, they just
don’t do anything together or really engage in meaningful conversations.
Of course, Arnold, like most sixtysomething men, feels a sense of
everyday comfort and complacency in his marriage, but Kay feels
differently. In a last ditch
Hail Mary effort to save what she thinks is a dying marriage, she enrolls them
both in a couples counseling workshop headed by a famous doctor and
author named Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell), who resides in the small town of
Hope Springs, Maine. Being a
cantankerous ol’ coot, Arnold declares that all is fine with his
marriage and refuses to go, but after much resistance, he begrudgingly
decides to travel with Kay and see the doctor.
early therapy sessions, predictably enough, don’t begin smoothly, mostly
because Kay is a deeply shy and guarded woman when it comes to relaying
her deepest thoughts and Arnold…well…doesn’t like to talk about his
or anyone else’s feelings at all. Dr.
Feld begins to notice that the core issue with the couple is one of
openness, communication, and intimacy, so he begins to prescribe them to
nightly homework assignments that are designed to slowly break down their
respective defense mechanisms in hopes of ultimately returning them to a
sexually content and verbally outgoing marriage again.
Some involve merely the act of touching each other for several
minutes, which then morphs into more…shall we say…increasingly
close-quartered touching...and then too…sex.
was surprised by how difficult of a film HOPE SPRINGS is to engage in at
times, but I mean that as a compliment. Watching this train wreck of a marriage – at least during
the opening acts of the film – is both heartbreaking and frustrating.
These are a pair of deeply wounded souls that just cant seem to
connect with one another anymore, largely because Arnold just seems to
have perpetual tunnel vision that blinds him to his wife’s needs.
On the other hand, Kay is so meek mannered and shrill voiced that
she does not stand up for herself or against her husband’s inabilities
to please her. When they
finally arrive on Dr. Feld’s couch and he asks them brutally frank and
simply questions about their intimacy issues and sexual history, they
squirm and wince through their answers like a child in a dentist’s
chair. At most points in the
film, Kay and Arnold seem like they will be hopelessly powerless to achieve matrimonial harmony again.
SPRINGS was directed by David Frankel, who previously made THE
DEVIL WEARS PRADA (also with Streep) and MARLEY AND ME and he does
one thing deceptively ingenious and wise here: He keeps his camera static
in many perpetual two-shots of Kay and Arnold on the therapist’s couch,
which allows us to simultaneously see one party relay their thoughts while
we can see the other uncomfortably fidget.
This less-is-more approach also allows for us to hone in on the
emotional undercurrent of the film and, of course, the performances by
Streep and Jones. HOPE
SPRINGS is one of the most stylistically spare and unobtrusively shot
films of 2012, which enhances the way it invites viewers into the cold and
uninvitingly guarded lives of its characters.
We feel like we’re nervously on the therapist’s couch with them
experience their difficulties of expressing who they are and what they
want their now frigid marriage to be; this is to the film’s ultimate
Streep has given many flamboyant and theatrical performances as of
late (see THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, JULIE
AND JULIA, and most recently THE IRON
LADY) that have netted her
multiple Oscar nominations, but I actually found her work here in HOPE
SPRINGS to be her most compellingly low key, affectingly understated, and
quietly moving performances of recent memory.
She’s not outgoing or whimsical here, but rather is an incessantly
withdrawn, soft-spoken, and wounded woman that longs to finds ways within
herself to mend a broken marriage.
Jones is the big revelation in the film, giving one of his best and
most emotionally awkward and vulnerable performances as his
crotchety and quick-tempered husband that pains to find the confidence to
talk about feelings that he has deeply repressed for decades.
Watching Jones struggle and fumble with words while trying to
pathetically understand what his wife and Dr. Feld want out of him are arguably the film’s most
is not to say the HOPE SPRINGS is not amusing as advertised.
Jones is so dependable at being hysterical when not trying: When he
tells Kay, for instance, “Let’s try this over here” in prep for one
of their intimacy exercises, it gets one of the film’s big laughs, not
to mention his one word response to Dr. Feld asking him, “What turns you
on sexually?” to which he deadpans back, “Sex.” (Carrell plays his
tricky role with a restrained and calm spoken openness and consideration
that never devolves into distracting camera mugging that could have been a
temptation for other weaker comedic actors trying to be serious).
The conclusion of HOPE SPRINGS may be a bit too neat, tidy, rosy,
and rigidly audience pleasing for its own good, not to mention that the
sometimes endless barrage of soft rock tunes in the background of the film
seems to distract from the overall whole. Ultimately, though, HOPE SPRINGS is dominated by two of the
very best powerhouse performances of the year by the indomitable Streep
and Jones (both very deserving future Oscar nominees) who never make you
doubt that they are a lifelong married couple that have hit rock bottom.
I pain to contemplate what HOPE SPRINGS would have been like
with lesser talent on board.