(by Dustin Putman
There have been plenty of pictures in the past centering on marital strife, and there will be plenty more in the future, but few will be as real and identifiable to average, everyday audiences as "Hope Springs," a middle-aged (and over) moviegoers' dream that could very well become the sleeper sensation of the summer film season. Whatever success it finds, it deserves it. Directed with unmistakable compassion by David Frankel (2008's "Marley & Me" - we'll forget that 2011's misbegotten "The Big Year" ever happened) and scripted with surprisingly welcome frankness by Vanessa Taylor, the film paints a detailed portrait of a longtime couple who have lost their spark, but aren't quite willing to give up the lives they've known for the past thirty-one years. Straddling the comedic line with the occasionally uncomfortable, the bittersweet, and the swoon-worthy, director Frankel guides Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) toward a well-fought battle. All of the above earn their victories. Article continues below
Their marriage has never been perfect, but, as Kay puts it, she has always felt like she and husband Arnold have been moving ahead, always with something to look forward to. Now that their children are grown and out of the house, they suddenly don't seem to have anything left to excitedly anticipate. Sleeping in separate bedrooms, never touching each other, and rarely speaking, Kay has watched her relationship with the man she loves dissolve before her eyes, the two of them barely co-existing as roommates, let alone romantic partners. Using money from her own personal savings, Kay signs the two of them up for week-long intensive couples counseling with acclaimed therapist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) in the sleepy coastal community of Great Hope Springs, Maine. Arnold is gruff and skeptical at best, but agrees to go along. What follows will put them, and their marriage, to the test, the two of them forced to take painful looks at themselves and each other as they try to figure out where they went wrong, and whether there's anything left to salvage. Dr. Feld does not promise to cure them in seven days' time, but to give them the tools they need to continue to open up to one another. No matter what Kay and Arnold decide to do after that, at least they will know they've tried.
It probably goes without saying at this point, but "Hope Springs" features two lovely lead performances from Meryl Streep (2011's "The Iron Lady") and Tommy Lee Jones (2012's "Men in Black III"), both of them worthy of year-end notices as they bravely put themselves and some admittedly raw emotions out there without a real-life character or immersive make-up job to hide behind. Yes, they are portraying fictional people, but Kay and Arnold are probably a little closer to who they truly are than, say, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and alien crime-fighter Agent K. A middle-class suburban couple in their fifties, the distance between them reverberates as the opening act sets up their chilly day-to-day routine, the way Kay yearns for attention and the way Arnold, stuck in his ways, doesn't bother to see the emptiness between them. He isn't completely clueless - an opening scene where Kay shows up in Arnold's bedroom all prettied up in a silky nightgown, only to get rebuffed, establishes Arnold's awareness that there's a problem - but his pride too often gets in the way of his decision to take action.
Even before Kay takes a taxi to the airport, leaving it up to her hubby to either show up or not, the viewer is right there rallying next to her, wholly involved and rooting for her to reclaim the happiness missing from her life. Once the setting moves to New England, authentically captured with an alternately gloomy and picturesque quaintness by cinematographer Florian Ballhaus (2011's "Mr. Popper's Penguins"), the wants, the disappointments, and the desires that make up Kay and Arnold grow and deepen. The counseling sessions are like master classes in acting, consisting mostly of three people in a room talking - Steve Carell (2012's "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World") makes for a surprisingly plausible therapist, authoritative yet empathetic - often about topics Kay and Arnold have never been forced to speak aloud about. Pushing the PG-13 line both here and in their assigned exercises (i.e., to hold each other; to touch each other; to live out one of their fantasies), the film finds humor in pain, and vice versa, remaining honest and forthright when most Hollywood movies with similar subject matter tend to shy away and immaturely get the giggles the moment intimacy and truth creep into the equation.
Meryl Streep is so often putting on accents and disappearing into unthinkably difficult roles that it's just as much a delight getting to watch her dress down and transform into a more normal, everyday kind of person. Likewise, Tommy Lee Jones is frequently called upon to be the straight man, with little chance to explore the dramatic complexity behind his expressive face. Kay and Arnold may be at an internal distance, but that doesn't stop Streep and Jones from exquisitely building the foundation for who they are and where they stand. Watching them, it's as if they are a genuine wedded couple, the kind with decades of memories to draw from. They do not always get along, but there isn't any doubt that a flash of hope still exists between them. Because the movie remains concentrated on this couple - and thankfully so - the supporting players drop in for only a scene or two apiece. Jean Smart (2010's "Barry Munday") is memorably understated as Eileen, Kay's friend and co-worker; Damian Young (2011's "Red State") enjoyably plays an innkeeper with a vicious waiting list at the restaurant Arnold desperately wants a reservation at; and Elisabeth Shue (2010's "Piranha") brings her special brand of easy-going light to Karen, a bartender who warmly lends an ear to customer Kay.
If director David Frankel falls into any traps on his way to introducing his protagonists to a whole new subtle but invaluable way of life, it is in his tendency to underscore drama with music that is too obvious and on-the-nose, at times all but spelling out with the lyrics what's happening on the screen. Less would have been better in these instances, even if some of the soundtrack choices, from Aaron Neville to Al Green to Annie Lennox, hit a fuzzy spot. The rest of "Hope Springs" is tough and poignant, but ultimately of a feel-good nature. Any viewer who has been in a long-term relationship will be able to see eye-to-eye in one way or another with this story, but it is those around the same ages as Kay and Arnold that will love it all the more. There aren't nearly enough movies made these days about and catering to the AARP-aged population, and even fewer still with the intelligence and insight said audience members deserve. For this, "Hope Springs" is something rather rare and special.