Baby boomers, much like their teenage counterparts, deserve better than what they are normally given at the movies. Quite often the films they are served up are half baked inspirational epics that had been told thousands of times before that never once speak to who they actually are as people living in the world. So when a film like the deeply flawed and still not all that great Hope Springs comes out, it’ s still a minor cause for celebration. Despite awkward pacing, a threadbare story, and an odd second act lurch towards sexism, the film ultimately does try to tackle 60+ sexuality in a humorous and loving manner, and it gets more than saved by two incredibly captivating lead performances.
Kay (Meryl Streep) wants nothing more out of life now that her kids have moved on out of the house than to be acknowledged by her hopelessly aloof and gruff husband of 31 years, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). They no longer sleep in the same room, he often passes out watching the Golf Network, his life has become so routine that any attempt to break him out of it results in an endless stream of complaints, and forget about sex. They haven’t even so much as touched each other in roughly five years.
From the outset, the film makes it apparent that this is Streep and Jones’ film to run with in any way they see fit and the wonderful opening gives the two of them perfect moments and opportunity to shine. They are one of the most believable on screen married couples in quite some time and their awkwardness, bitterness, and complacency feels totally unforced even when the film will attempt to overcomplicate things to near disastrous results later on. These two are phenomenal right from the opening scene (arguably the best in the whole film) where Kay wordlessly tries to “seduce” Arnold into just sleeping in the same room as her, but he can’t be bothered to look up from his golfing magazine and he stammers through a bunch of empty excuses why he can’t leave the guest room.
Fed up with constantly feeling unwanted, Kay takes some advice from noted marriage therapist and self-help writer Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell), and she gradually breaks the chronically complaining Arnold into following her to a marriage retreat and visit to Feld’s offices in Maine. The remainder of the movie follows Kay and the vehemently opposed Arnold as they make their way through therapy with hopes of adding more intimacy to their lives and ultimately to save their marriage from complete dissolution by way of apathy.
Once the film approaches the point of the therapy sessions, things start to get problematic. While Streep and Jones still put in wonderful work, the film decides to go in a bolder direction than Marley & Me and The Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel and television writer Vanessa Taylor are capable of going in. The actual sequences of couples therapy are long and cyclical to feel like the audience is watching an actual counselling session. Needless to say, aside from some great acting, the pacing gets killed by dialogue that alternates wildly between stilted, insightful, forced, banal, and sometimes incredibly rushed because there is no concept of how these sequences should be paced. That’s a huge issue when these sequences make up almost half of the film’s running time.
Now would also be a good time to say that if anyone is thinking of going to see Carell be his usually funny self they shouldn’t even bother. Carell, although holding his own against acting royalty, is totally miscast as the straight-man here. In the film’s commitment to realism, Carell is playing a professional therapist who says nothing that could ever once be construed as a joke.
It’s understandable that Frankel and Taylor would want to give their actors as big of a showcase as possible (and with capable vets like Streep and Jones who honestly wouldn’t give them free reign), but their commitment to slow burning realism comes at odds with their desire to keep the story moving. For example, if Dr. Feld asks them for a list of all the things they have done sexually, they only talk about one specific thing in great length before ending the session. It will be a five or six minute sequence that will set up a gag outside of the therapy session, but not much ground will be covered.
This comes to harm the characters later on when it feels like almost out of nowhere that the film begins to blame Streep’s character for the marital problems. It doesn’t say she’s entirely at fault, but there’s literally a line in the film about this being all about “pleasing the man you love.” It’s a bit icky especially since the first half of the film shows the great pains Kay goes through to set everything up in the first place. Frankel and Taylor even give themselves an easy out by constantly playing up that Arnold has a deep secret that is going to come out through therapy, but they drop the ball because it never goes anywhere specific. The film keeps saying that there’s a problem between the two of them, and while we can see the loss of passion between them, the audience never feels entirely privy to just what that problem is exactly.
Anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that sexuality, while usually a large part, is never the be all and end all of a partnership. There are always other issues bubbling under the surface, and it’s those issues that the second and third acts ofHope Springs completely throws away in favour of the one problem with the most comedic potential, leading to decidedly unrealistic looking sequences of outlandish sexuality (movie theatre blow jobs, banana fellatio) that reek of filmmakers hedging their bets. Streep and Jones seem completely game to take this look at relationships to as dark a place as possible, but Frankel and Taylor keep pulling back, even tacking on a feel good ending that the film in no way deserves because of just how rushed it feels. If the filmmakers had allowed Streep and Jones to explore these characters more fully and let them throw the script out the window, Hope Springs would be something special. Instead, it’s an intermittently admirable face plant with wonderful performances made all the more frustrating by how it almost gets things right.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell
Directed by: David Frankel
Top image: A scene from Hope Springs. Courtesy Sony Pictures.