With Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Jean Smart, Elisabeth Shue. Written by Vanessa Taylor. Directed by David Frankel. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving sexuality). 99 minutes.
If you have hadn’t been taking in foreign and independent movies, it’s been a long hot summer of cartoons, superheroes and hijinks at the movies. After all, how many times can you go to see “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?” The arrival of HOPE SPRINGS will find a lot of middle-aged and older couples heading out to a quiet comedic drama that, for a change, is about their lives.
By all appearances, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have a successful marriage, celebrating their 31 years together. Their children are grown. They have a nice home in Omaha. Arnold is a partner in an accounting firm. Kay works at a clothing boutique. From the opening scenes, though, it becomes clear that appearances deceive. They sleep in separate rooms. When she puts on a nightgown and offers to join him in bed, he begs off, citing the pork he ate at lunch.
Kay finds a book about reinvigorating your marriage by a Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) and decides to take some of her savings for a week long session of intensive marital therapy… in Maine. Arnold thinks this is the stupidest idea he’s ever heard of and doesn’t want to go but, in the end, he does. This is when the film finally gets underway as we follow them day by day through their week with Dr. Feld. They have a session in the morning, where he gets them talking about themselves including their sex lives. The look on Kay’s face during a discussion of oral sex is priceless.
Their afternoons are for spending time together or alone. After one argument, Kay ends up at a bar talking to a friendly bartender (Elisabeth Shue). Feld isn’t a quack with a miracle cure for troubled couples. He’s a patient therapist who gets them to admit things to themselves and to each other. In the end, it is they who have decide if their marriage is worth saving.
Streep and Jones are marvelous as a couple who have taken each other for granted and left too much unsaid over the years. While the whole thing is Kay’s idea, both she and Arnold are at times reluctant to discuss some topics, particularly sex. While there are some definite laughs here, there’s also a painful reality that allow them to play real emotions. Carell is laid back but persistent as the therapist, just a real therapist would make the patient or patients the focus, not him or herself. Shue, Jean Smart and Mimi Rogers appear briefly. This is really a showcase for Streep and Jones, with Carell in support.
Whether you’re in a marriage, or have been there, or are contemplating one, this is a movie at once funny and sad about what can happen in even the best of marriages over time. “Hope Springs” doesn’t say it will be easy, but it does tell us that a good relationship is one worth working at and preserving. This won’t make any ten best lists at the end of the year, but it ought to start a lot fruitful conversations.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.