There is a deep sadness in Kay’s eyes the night that she puts on a sexy nightgown and enters her husband’s bedroom, hoping that he will take the hint. She already knows what will happen. They haven’t slept in the same room in years. She finds her husband Arnold propped up in the bed reading a Golf magazine, and when he looks at her, he assumes that she has come to complain that her room is too cold. Minutes pass before he realizes what she wants. Fumbling at her wordless suggestion, he makes an excuse about not feeling well. We sense that this has become a routine.
Hope Springs is a flawed, but intelligent comic-drama about a marriage that has slipped into a repetitive rut. Arnold and Kay Soames have been married for 31 years, and have been alone in the house since their last child left for college four years ago. Arnold is happy in his routine and Kay is too afraid of starting an argument to tell him that she is bored stiff. His life is perfectly content. He gets up in the morning, has the same thing for breakfast – two eggs sunny-side up, side of bacon with coffee and orange juice. He goes to work, then comes home, has dinner, natters a bit about his job (he’s an accountant), then falls asleep in front of the golf channel. He acknowledges Kay more or less the same way that he does the refrigerator. He loves her but seems to regard her more as a fixture. All around him, Kay wanders about her daily routine, trying to find some way to break it. The couple is at odds emotionally and physically (he hasn’t touched her in years) until finally Kay has had enough.
One night she presents him with a bold announcement at dinner. She has signed them up for a week-long couples counseling session with a certain Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell) in Maine with money that she has been saving. Arnold’s natural instinct is to give Kay’s suggestion a resounding “Hell, no”, but Kay is ready for this. She tells him that the plane leaves in the morning and she will be on it whether he is there or not. No points for guessing what his decision will be. When he takes the seat next to her, all he can say is “Well, I hope you’re happy.”
What you think will happen (based on a very misleading trailer) is that there will be all kinds of classic misunderstandings, colorful supporting characters, pratfalls, and foolish one-liners in the service of trekking Arnold and Kay on the road to marital bliss. You’d be half-right. The best parts of Hope Springs take place in the therapist’s office as the good-natured (and very patient) Dr. Feld tries to get Arnold and Kay to open up about where their marriage stalled. Arnold doesn’t want to talk because he has long-since given up his emotions for grouchy indifference. Kay is afraid to talk because doesn’t want to rock the boat, but the further that Dr. Feld digs into their relationship, the more he gets them to open up. When the couple is comfortable they sit next to each other on the couch. When things get uncomfortable they sit at opposite ends.
Not much of what happens to Arnold and Kay is a surprise. The movie is a sometimes happy, sometimes complicated drama that draws them toward reigniting the fire in their marriage, but it doesn’t get any more complicated than it needs to be. What is refreshing is that the plot is thin enough that it gets out of their way. This is more of a character study than a full-blooded story. There are no needless side-plots, no useless pratfalls, no unnecessary characters. What we have here is a very involving portrait of two people who have lived in each other’s company for 31 years and now have to reestablish what it means to be married.
The most brilliant decision that went into this picture was the casting of two of the best actors in the business. Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep are so familiar to us that we get comfortable with them right away. We can believe from the first moment we see them that they have been married for three decades. Streep, of course, is the most expressive of actors, always able to reveal hidden dimensions without uttering a word. There are moments in the therapist’s office when she doesn’t speak and we can see her thinking. But it is Tommy Lee Jones that surprises us (she’s great, he’s a revelation). This is a very rare role for him. He often plays police officers and military men, but here he is required to play a man who must crack his tough exterior to be more of a sensitive and loving man for his wife. He’s the perfect actor to do it, and knowing that Arnold isn’t that far from Jones’ personality it real life, this must have been a difficult role for him to play.
Most of the therapy deals with their sex life (they don’t have one). Dr. Feld asks some very pointed, and often painfully uncomfortable questions in an effort to get these two to open up. The scene in which he digs under their sex life is played with blinding honesty and is made all the more uncomfortable by the director’s wise decision not to undercut it with a musical score. Even better is the fact that Steve Carrell – one of our best comic talents – plays the role of the therapist completely straight. He is bold, he is honest, and he quietly hammers Arnold and Kay with questions that they are clearly ill-equipped to answer.
Not to worry, however, this is not a dirty movie. It is simply a movie about a couple trying to find their way back to marital bliss as they slip quietly into their 60s. It is equal parts character study and comedy. One very funny scene takes place in a movie theater where the couple tries out some of the doctor’s intimacy advice there in the dark.
If there is one weakness in the film, it is the ending. The movie is about 20 minutes too long and gives us a happy ending that sponge-cleans all of Arnold and Kay’s problems until they don’t seem to exist anymore. A more life-goes-on ending might have been more appropriate here based on what has gone before, but still this is a good movie, well-written and well played.