Most everything is right with Hope Springs, the tale of a late-term marriage gone wrong. Co-starring Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) as a compliant wife and Tommy Lee Jones (Company Men) as a gruff breadwinner, the two stars play to the same type that marks their later careers; Streep is constantly touching her face as the neurotic woman and Jones is chronically grouchy and repressed as the inaccessible man. Their star pairing, which is at this intelligent and adult-themed movie’s center, serves to illuminate the movie’s real star: actor Steve Carell (Little Miss Sunshine) as a psychologist whose rational approach may help the troubled couple to rescue their disowned selves, reclaim their egos and find true love and happiness.
That doesn’t mean they’ll end up together, like the bacon and eggs that cook in the frying pan on various mornings in various stages of Hope Springs, a frank and thoughtful picture that dramatizes commitment to a lasting romantic relationship. Unpeeling layer after layer of their 31-year marriage, we start (thanks to Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay) with key starting points. Kay (Streep) who works in retail becomes progressively more unsettled in the marriage and finally seeks a solution that tells her what she (thinks she) wants to hear. This leads her to one of those self-help intensives. After encountering resistance from stubborn Arnold (Jones), they’re off to the titular town in Maine, temporarily leaving behind the sameness and conformity of their lives in the suburban Midwest.
As their couples counselor, Carell is superb, playing straight, clear and honest, with not a hint of cynicism. He treats their relationship as a moral and mental health emergency, so Kay learns that he is emphatically not going to tell her what she wants to hear; she must learn to listen, foremost to herself via introspection, which she’s never learned to do. Hope Springs gushes with such starting (or re-starting) points, as I said. In scene after scene, we see why these two came undone. They are both lost as individuals, entering old age carrying too much of the burden of unfinished business. As we see that the intimacy has been extinguished in their sexless marriage, we start to see that it will take hard work and effort and it is quickly clear that those efforts may not succeed. As Carell’s doctor puts it, with gentle and genuine empathy and kindness in his measured voice and soft brown eyes, some things must be broken to be fixed and, sometimes, what’s been been busted is beyond repair.
It is not easy to like these two. He pummels her with rejection and she’s an expert at withholding what a man needs even when she thinks she’s nurturing. As they strive to piece their marriage together and re-connect by pulling apart under the guidance of Carell’s doctor – who gives them questions, tools and exercises – they become uniquely realistic in amusing and interesting ways. Their lives are good and productive and, because they strive so hard to get things right, we are invested in their success. When they’re assigned to touch one another in simple, sensual strokes, it’s easy to recoil at the slightest hesitation, the little jabs, the indulgences of pent-up hurt and anger. With a hypercritical husband who recalls his youthful mate as no darn good at what she was studying in school, we see why she holds back. With an unfulfilled wife who treats her husband as part of the wallpaper and then wonders why he acts like it, we see why he is bitter. But with a good, pre-ObamaCare doctor (who, by the way, is a rich, successful moneymaking capitalist) we unravel the small and daily drama of their crumbling marriage and why, apart or together, that which springs from trying to save their union is what’s good in both of them. Hope Springs is not one of those silly joke movies with adults acting out as deranged children; it’s a poignant study in getting close.