There’s a common bit of received wisdom about mainstream movie production and promotion that divides the market into “quarters”: young and old, male and female. The exact boundary of “young” varies from the early 20s to the early 30s, depending on who’s telling the story, but it’s not really a surprise that pretty much everything is at least tweaked towards the young-male quarter, if not aimed directly at it. And so it’s almost surprising that a film like Hope Springs gets made at all, let alone gets a wide release. Yes, Nancy Myers has made a bit of a cottage industry around old-people-in-love stories like Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, but Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay cuts out the defensive humor and offers instead a stripped-down anatomical study of what happens when love is allowed to fade out of a marriage.
Director David Frankel’s presentation is similarly restrained; this could easily work as a three-person stage play. Kay and Arnold Soames (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) have come from their home in Omaha to Great Hope Springs, Maine for a week of “intensive couples counseling” with Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell). If you’re thinking that Jones — or at least his typical character — is about the last person you can see showing up for counseling of any sort, you’re right; Kay is the one who insisted on coming, and Arnold very nearly didn’t even come to the airport. But of course he gave in, or we wouldn’t have a movie.
What follows is a bracingly honest examination of Kay and Arnold’s marriage. Arnold doesn’t think anything is wrong; he’s comfortable in their routine. Kay feels something is drastically wrong — wrong enough to risk ending the marriage if it can’t be fixed. We see, as they recall, that there was once a real love between the two of them. But we also see that they have no real skill at communicating with each other about their relationship.
Streep and Jones are both perfect, and they are perfectly believable as a couple who have settled into a familiar — if not always entirely comfortable — routine. It should be no surprise by now that Streep can nail the character of a frustrated, aging housewife at the end of her rope. But casting Jones is the real genius here, precisely because his usual character is exactly the sort of strong, silent, midwestern man who wants no part of obvious rip-offs like therapy. And Carell pulls off exactly the warm, kind, infinitely patient benevolence that a counselor like Bernie needs to possess, but without any comedic bits that would make us doubt his sincerity or his insights.
Because this film really does believe in the usefulness of therapy to help restore communication to a relationship where it’s been lost. At the same time, it realizes that there are no magic bullets; Kay and Arnold are not going to leave Great Hope Springs suddenly made whole again, as they might in a simpler story. Bernie’s therapy offers a chance to change the direction a couple is moving, but it’s not certain if they’ll capitalize on this opportunity, or let it slip through their fingers as so many have before.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.