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Anybody want to see a movie about a stalled marriage, where the couple no longer share a bed and hardly talk to each other? And they're nearing retirement age? You think you might take a pass on that? What if stars Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, and the marketing tag is 'romantic comedy'?
Sustaining a career on top longer and stronger than any contemporary film actress, Meryl Streep is claiming all the available great roles, much as had Bette Davis a half-century earlier. The actress is extremely effective as strong-willed women, like the nun in Doubt, the fashion maven in The Devil Wears Prada or the ferocious Prime Minister in The Iron Lady. Streep can also convey the sense of pure fun needed to buoy silly assignments like Mamma Mia! Although her general popularity hasn't waned, Streep has been canonized by the generation that saw her first big appearances in The Deer Hunter and TV's Holocaust. Her parts in the last few years acknowledge her age in a graceful way that makes growing older seem perhaps a bit less painful. I wouldn't call Ms. Streep's choice of roles particularly risky, but they're never obvious and she rarely repeats herself.
Marketed as a romantic comedy -- the TV spots were all cute faces and zinger one-liners -- Hope Springs has its laughs but is basically quite serious. When Meryl Streep and her co-star Tommy Lee Jones are funny, it's character-observation comedy, never smart remarks and put-downs. Believe it or not, the screenplay treats both the characters and the audience with respect.
The show looks inside an American marriage in a rut. Kay and Arnold are in their late '50s. He's an accountant, they have a nice house and the kids are grown up and have their own lives. Kay is unhappy -- Arnold follows a dull routine and scarcely interacts with her. He's slept separately for years and they haven't had sex in four. Kay suggests counseling, which Arnold rejects out of hand. Kay books a week of sessions with the consulting clinic of Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), a specialist in the quiet Maine village of Hope Springs. Arnold refuses to accompany her but relents when he realizes that he might be letting his marriage fall apart. Grumbling all the way, Arnold resists Feld's intimate questions, resents being put on the spot and complains that the therapy is a cheap racket. Kay is appalled that the man she loves could have become such a bully. Arnold balks at following Dr. Feld's instructions. He's so alienated from his relationship that he has difficulty even touching Kay. Dr. Feld's "bedroom homework" assignments aren't working out. Kay fears that the problem is that she's simply no longer attractive. Will the big effort to save the marriage instead kill it off?
Talk about personalities and star chemistry making the difference: Meryl Streep's interpretation of an ordinary housewife erases most of the pitfalls in this thoughtful comedy-drama. Kay has let her marriage slip into an untenable position, where here husband sleeps away from her and barely acknowledges her presence. There's no discussion of anything, let alone personal issues. When Kay shows up at Arnold's bedroom asking sheepishly if they might sleep together, he begs off in a way that says, "What's your problem? Don't be ridiculous."
But Arnold isn't as close to a total marriage write-off as he seems. He has enough sense to realize that Kay might leave him, and he sure as hell doesn't want to be alone. Just the same, Arnold spends at least 2/3rds of the picture being an insufferable ass, whining and complaining about money, griping that he's the victim of a therapy scam and furious that his dignity is being violated with all these questions about his love life and "instructions" that he and Kay perform various intimacy exercises.
So many American men are like Arnold that I can imagine the film making them uncomfortable - a good husband will squirm a bit recognizing aspects of Arnold in himself. We feel that Kay is the wronged party. She's the delicate and passive partner, and Arnold can be a brutal ass.
And it's true, Hope Springs is written from a female perspective. Although both parties 'grow' through the therapy Arnold is identified as the clod with the problem. The most Kay must consider is that their sex life might need some variety -- although we're never told that they stopped making love because Arnold found it dull. When therapist Dr. Feld finally gets around to having his patients voice their fantasies, he urges them to relax and let the thoughts flow. Anything is possible. Kay and Arnold each offer daydream ideas, nothing too outrageous. The 'female perspective' asserts itself in the film's final joke. In reference to one of Arnold's fantasies, Kay laughingly says, "It's not gonna happen!" She's being funny, yet Hope Springs has returned the marriage to what it assumes is the proper norm: the woman is in charge.
The movie isn't specific about the cause of Kay and Arnold's problem, and offers only one major hint of hidden difficulties. At the end of a perfect date situation, the couple is having sex on the floor of a fancy hotel room. Arnold is making these horrible faces, which may or may not be S.O.P. for him. When he opens his eyes and stares at Kay, he freezes and then has to stop. She is mortified, convinced that it he found her wholly unattractive. It's never really explained (not a bad thing) but there is an earlier clue, when we hear that Arnold tended to keep his eyes shut during sex. Is he basically uptight, ashamed that he might enjoy it? The movie as finished doesn't probe deeper into this incident.
The movie is probably wise not to give a pat answer for everything. Kay and Arnold don't want their relationship analyzed, they want it to work. We are grateful to see such Ordinary People problems treated so seriously. TV sitcoms long ago made sex over fifty an easy target for cheap derision, with funny old biddies and their pathetic fantasies, and dirty old men grumbling about their loss of potency. Not only that, most any comedy addressing sex relations has become a ticket for 'funny' cruelty, gross-out humor and felony infantilism. I suppose the perfect target audience for Hope Springs would be 50+ women, many of whom might have to tease/dare/drag their mates to the theater. How the men will react surely varies in every case. I can assure you that most married men will immediately recognize some of their own feelings (or grudges) in the husband played by Tommy Lee Jones. If you're an insular, unaffectionate, miserable S.O.B., the movie ought to make you squirm. Yet the overall tone is fairly light. If Hope Springs pretended that it had a general solution for marital dysfunction, it would be insulting. It doesn't and it's not.
Some less privileged viewers may look at Kay and Arnold's comfortable lifestyle and conclude that the couple is too affluent to be wholly sympathetic, that they should feel lucky that this intimacy issue is their worst problem. 1 Kay doesn't have to work. Arnold can take off a week with no notice. Kay is able to throw $4000 plus airfare and accommodations at the problem without batting an eye. Faced with a sticky date problem, Arnold can nail a table at the best restaurant in town and book a swank hotel room for the night, in addition to their motel room over near Dr. Feld's clinic. Most of us would never consider analysis or therapy to help us with personal problems - we're still in search of reliable health insurance. Yet we identify with Kay and Arnold's marital problems. It's a movie, after all. Actors Jones and Streep are so likeable, these issues have a minimal effect.
The presence of Steve Carrell raises expectations that Hope Springs will be a rowdier picture, which it never becomes. Dr. Feld's clinical sex talk is straightforward enough; in the consultation scenes he's the earnest straight man. 2 The most radical thing that happens is when Feld decides that shock treatment is indicated and sends his charges to a French movie with the apparent instruction to have oral sex. I'm surprised that this scene is amusing instead of sinking the picture outright. I suppose all concerned were looking for something at least a little raunchy, that might create a buzz among the female patrons that enjoyed The Bridesmaids.
Meryl Streep and her director David Frankel avoid outright nudity, without making an issue of it. The idea is to examine marriage intimacy problems, not present a sex spectacle with top stars. We understand why Streep's character worries about being desirable, even though she's as attractive as ever. We're much more aware of Kay as a vulnerable woman who must confront her unreasonable husband if she wants to keep her marriage and start living again.
If anything is a bit strained it's that Arnold is an exceptional case. I think Tommy Lee does quite well with Arnold, who is written as an emotionally constipated jerk. Plenty of guys are all hale and hearty in male company and assure you that things are just fine back home. Arnold is in a rut, on the run from intimacy and resigned to a marriage with minimal contact, because "that's how things are and let's not discuss it." The not-quite-right detail is that Arnold harbors no terrible underlying resentments. He doesn't hate his wife and he doesn't think that she's become unattractive. But he does seem to have a personal problem really giving all of himself to sex...
Hope Springs is attractively filmed, with the little seaside town providing a good ambience for a marriage weekend getaway. Director Frankel places his actors interestingly in the frame, considering that most of the picture is composed of medium close-ups. One scene that confuses at first is when Dr. Feld interviews the couple separately, asking the same questions. The responses are intercut, and for a moment we don't know what's going on -- the couch next to Kay is empty one second, and then Arnold is there, and then he's gone again. Receiving attention in the cast are Elizabeth Shue and Mimi Rogers, both of which are known for sexually potent screen roles. Shue has one scene as a friendly barmaid while Rogers is barely a walk-on in medium-long shot.
Columbia Pictures/ Sony's Blu-ray of Hope Springs (also available on DVD) is the expected sparkling encoding of this recent release. Shot on the Arri Alexa digital camera, it retains a film feel in all respects.
Disc extras are still very much alive on new releases. Director Frankel provides the full commentary, and an EPK-style featurette includes interview bites with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones -- a task Jones normally shuns. A gallery of alternate takes and a gag reel are present as well.
The Blu-ray has four more extra featurettes about the film, with engaging titles like "An Expert's Guide to Everlasting Passion". Steve Carell talks about his character as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hope Springs Blu-ray rates:
1. Money does not seem to be a problem despite how much Arnold whines about it. They live in a nice neighborhood in a 'nice' house, which these days makes Kay and Arnold lucky people indeed. The children aren't calling with problems, the bills are paid and nobody's sick. Their parents are apparently out of the picture. No drugs, crime, or other tragedies appear to be major issues, at least not at the moment.
2. Oddly enough, except for an epilogue scene, Dr. Feld is always seen sitting in the same chair, in almost exactly the same pose and composition. Hope Springs isn't the kind of picture that needs to economize, but Steve Carrell's performance could have been filmed in an afternoon.
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T'was Ever Thus.