A film review by Craig J. Koban September 19, 2012


2012, PG-13, 100 mins.

Kay: Meryl Streep / Arnold: Tommy Lee Jones / Dr. Feld: Steve Carell

Directed by David Frankel / Written by Vanessa Taylor.

If 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.  

Their 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 side up every 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.

Kay 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. 



The 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. 

I 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. 

HOPE 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 credit. 

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 painful moments.  

This 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.

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