With a little help of Steve Carell, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones get it on in the new rom-com Hope Springs — at least they try to.
The opening scene shows Meryl Streep as Kay, tousling her hair before the bathroom mirror and wearing a modestly revealing negligee. The audience watches in mild discomfort as the older woman attempts to get in bed with her husband, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), who sleeps in the spare bedroom (due to an old back injury, we later learn) and clumsily rejects his wife’s weak advance. With this simple but uncomfortable scene, David Frankel, director of family favorites like The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, establishes the couple’s primary issue and the awkward tone that will persist throughout the film.
Hope Springs elaborates on how distant and routine Kay and Arnold’s marriage has become; the couple barely speaks as Kay makes her husband the same breakfast every morning, Arnold barely acknowledging his wife’s presence and falling asleep watching golf every night. The relationship survives by muscle memory, but things hit a new low when, on the 31st anniversary of their wedding, they settle on a new cable package as a joint gift. Wanting a “real marriage” again, Kay books a trip to Maine for intensive couples counseling. Arnold initially refuses to go, but of course shows up, making it in the nick of time and complaining throughout.
The clear focus of the couple’s therapy sessions with Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), and thus the film as a whole, is their sex life. And when I say sex is the focus, I mean it’s pretty much the only thing they talk about. The film is never explicit, but scene after scene is just sex — talking about sexual histories, doing intimacy exercises, reading instructional books, performing certain acts in public … Don’t get me wrong, I may be young, but it’s not that I find old people doing sexy things gross. I really like films like Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated (yet another movie where Meryl gets it on). But all the sex talk in Hope Springs seemed like a gag, particularly because Kay and Arnold’s lack of intimacy is a direct symptom of their complete lack of communication, which is more or less ignored and improves only marginally throughout the film. Ultimately, Hope Springs is so focused on the couple’s sex life (the movie lacks even one minor subplot) that it becomes a simplistic parody of a real marriage in crisis.
Speaking of simplicity, the characters are mostly stock and the talents of the exceptional cast are wasted. Streep plays an unassertive, mild-mannered woman who can’t tell her husband how she really feels, and Jones plays an abrasive, nine-to-fiver who thinks he has a decent marriage because they live comfortably and “he pay[s] all the bills.” Fine but boring. The biggest waste is arguably Steve Carell as Dr. Feld, a character that lacks any warmth and comes off as creepy, especially when asking detailed questions about his patient’s sex lives. (I’m sure the heavy interrogation is normal for couple’s counseling, but Carell’s delivery feels off in the film).
Hope Springs has some amusing bits, but it’s too simpleminded a film and the results are unconvincing. Although I don’t think it worked, I will give Frankel and writer Vanessa Taylor props for taking on subject matter that will be considered repulsive to the majority of theater goers — i.e., 16-year-old males. Old people have needs too, guys, haven’t you ever seen The Golden Girls?