When love ‘Springs’ a leak
Updated: August 13, 2012 1:56PM
★ ★ ★ 1/2
An intelligent and occasionally painful adult drama with a not-entirely-compatible overlay of comic trappings, “Hope Springs” is a somewhat odd emotional hybrid that doesn’t entirely live up to its promise.
Yet the promise is rich enough, and comes close enough to being fulfilled, for it to qualify as one of the most thoughtful and provocative films of the year.
It’s also a truly brilliant bit of late-summer counter-programming that’s almost guaranteed to reap great rewards from the vast, woefully underserved audience of older adult moviegoers, who may be just a trifle tired of comic-book superheroes and hard-R-rated raunch.
Not that there’s no overlap, at least in terms of the subject matter that used to be classified “adult” — now barely worth a PG-13 rating. Sex plays a large and embarrassing part in the proceedings in “Hope Springs,” which lays bare the all-but-dead interpersonal relationship of old marrieds Kay and Arnold (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, both at their best).
After 31 years together, with the kids grown up and a big empty house to themselves, anxiously dutiful housewife Kay and dour, accounting-firm-partner Arnold co-exist and little more. There is no evidence of animosity, but they barely acknowledge each other’s presence.
After dinner, Arnold dozes in an easy chair while watching The Golf Channel and Kay cleans up in the kitchen, then they head off to their separate bedrooms. They haven’t slept together for five years. Arnold seems reasonably content (maybe comatose is a better word), but Kay is obviously unhappy and desperately lonely.
The film opens with her nervously adjusting her hair and nightgown for maximum sexiness before knocking on Arnold’s bedroom door and suggesting that perhaps they could spend the night together. “Why?” says Arnold, then “Oh,” before begging off on the grounds that he ate pork for lunch.
Which is a reaction he soon has cause to regret.
Determined to save their marriage, Kay informs Arnold she has booked a week of intensive marriage counseling with best-selling pop-psychologist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). He refuses, of course, she quietly insists and soon they’re flying to the little town of Hope Springs, Maine, with Arnold grumbling all the way.
That’s where things start to get interesting, because it soon becomes evident that while all the elements are present for a broad, mid-life-crisis sort of past-prime romantic comedy, “Hope Springs” settles in for a good long stretch of uncomfortable reality.
The best thing, by far, about this film is watching the way that Jones and Streep dig deep into their roles as plain, ordinary, frustrated, disillusioned, aging middle-class Americans, awkwardly and excruciatingly trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with their lives, individually and as a couple.
Allow me to double emphasize that “awkward and excruciating” part. This film is not a touchy-feely valentine to psychotherapy. Kay is desperate enough to try anything, but she’s terrified, and Arnold is pure, seething hostility throughout the process.
And if you’re waiting for Carell to supply some comic relief as the good doctor Feld, forget it. He plays it perfectly straight, doing little more than posing the clinical questions about their marriage, their relationship and their sex life that clearly make Arnold wish he could choke the life out of him.
A fascinating, though occasionally painfully embarrassing, give and take takes place in “Hope Springs.” Husband and wife start out at opposite ends of Feld’s office couch, with body language clearly stating that any intimacy they might have once shared is long gone, then they slowly begin to work things out, with much collateral emotional damage, coming closer for a moment before resetting to their defaults.
The script, by TV writer/producer Vanessa Taylor (“Game of Thrones”) is not particularly detailed or revealing, but Jones and Streep make it seem as if it were, supplying subtle shades of meaning and revealing their characters’ inner lives through pure artistry.
A process director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) is wise enough to allow them lots of space for silence and plenty of room to maneuver emotionally, before relieving the tension from time to time with some mild comic relief, which typically takes the form of Arnold and Kay clumsily attempting to implement Dr. Feld’s intimacy exercises.
A couple of those interludes verge on preciousness, but you can’t go too far wrong with performers like these, and there are times when the scenes work very nicely, such as their first night in the program, when Arnold twists and contorts himself and finally remembers how to put his arms around Kay in bed. The following morning when she wakes up with his arm still around her, she reacts with a quiet, radiant smile.
As soon as it seems they have made a breakthrough, however, it turns out they have only uncovered another area of trouble. It soon becomes apparent that something deep down is troubling Arnold, something he will have to resolve in order for them to make true progress. Jones makes that abundantly clear, yet the information is not in the script and that revelation never really comes.
Instead, “Hope Springs” asks us to accept a facile and somewhat vague moment of truth leading to an emotional resolution that isn’t honestly earned.
Even so, Jones and Streep make it work, more or less, and the whole thing still feels well-worthwhile, if only because of the rare reminder it offers, that even when it comes to love, it’s not over ’til it’s over.