Marriage takes work. Jobs, kids, houses, and ESPN have a way of creeping into happy relationships, replacing excitement and fun with crippling boredom. People get in ruts, they stop paying attention to their partners’ needs, and their foundation begins to crack. We’ve been told this story many times before, and while no new ground is broken, Hope Springs is a cute movie to which almost everyone in the audience can relate.
Arnold and Kay, played by Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, have been married for 31 years and to say they’ve hit a plateau is an understatement. They don’t touch each other, they barely speak with more than an “mmmhmmm”, and they’ve hit a point where anniversary gifts are upgraded cable packages and new hot water heaters. Kay is deeply unhappy but Arnold doesn’t notice. It’s time for a change. In the ever-present “browsing the self-help section at the bookstore will solve my relationship problems” scene, Kay stumbles upon the lone copy of a book by Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell), which she reads in the car while a light rain falls (that’s how you know this book will change her life). Using her savings without Arnold’s permission, she books a trip to Maine for Dr. Feld’s Intensive Couples Therapy and tells Arnold to get his ass on that plane before she sold his big TV to pay for the divorce filing. No, Kay would never say anything that forceful. A reluctant Arnold gets on the plane, thank goodness, or this would have been a very short movie. More awkwardness and sadness ensue in counseling as the exceedingly calm and collected Dr. Feld digs fantasies, regrets, and honesty out of the patients. Kay and Arnold bounce from setbacks to bright spots and do some hard work during their week of counseling, but in the end they have to decide if their marriage is worth saving.
The three key actors were all excellent, elevating Vanessa Taylor’s rather generic script. This is a very talky film, so lesser actors could have killed it. While there is some funny dialog, the parts that made me laugh out loud could all be chocked up to acting choices. Tommy Lee Jones plays crotchety old men so often I wonder if he’s not just playing himself, but I like it either way. He was a gruff bully, but he managed to come off as a man who had just given up rather than the villain. Meryl Streep is so good with her face, she can make me laugh without speaking at all. Her Kay was insecure and meek in a way that made me feel uncomfortable for her. Steve Carrell should be in every movie. He is so good in dramatic roles, letting his characters blend and support the others rather than using antics or overacting to steal the spotlight. His Dr. Feld could have been a caricature of cheesy therapists, but his irritating monotone came off as professional and human. Having seen these three actors play very similar characters before, it is hard to give credit to the director for their solid work. But David Frankel certainly did the audience a favor by allowing them to all do what they do so well.
I was charmed by the lead characters and the scenery is beautiful, but there were some loose ends in this film. Scenes that could have been thematically important fizzled into irrelevance or died off completely when a question should have been answered that might have driven the story or helped us better understand the characters. We know why they are unhappy but never really learn the root causes. There is a scene with Streep in a bar that does nothing but provide a cameo for Elisabeth Shue. At the same time, Jones goes to a museum and nothing happens. Ten minutes could have been cut from the script and none of the story would have been lost. In another scene, Streep expresses that she feels that Jones isn’t attracted to her and he says, “It’s not that” but we never learn what it is. Without that key piece of information, the audience can’t fully understand what’s going on for him in the marriage, so we have no reason to believe they should stay together or not. There was no real depth to the characters or their problems, but we are meant to believe that a week of therapy in beautiful Maine helped them make huge life decisions with no sustained work once they got home. If 30 minutes of fluff scenes had been replaced with content, this could have been much more than an easy-to-watch chick flick.
Parts of this movie are very funny, Jones and Streep are great together, and I did enjoy it overall. For me, the lack of depth and originality send this one straight to video. I’d definitely rent it or watch it on a plane, but it wouldn’t make it into the list of movies I had to see in the theatre.
– Taylor Bunn