‘Hope Springs’: Finding the spark

August 7, 2012


The commercials make “Hope Springs” look like some sort of mildly naughty sex comedy about an uptight older-middle-aged couple who rediscover the joys of sex through couples’ therapy. With Steve Carell – that wacky guy! – as the therapist.

And the ads trumpet the fact that it’s from “the director of ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’”

You’re getting the picture – this is a comedy, right? At least that’s what they’re selling you.

So let me just say two things: This is a smart, enjoyable, even moving film.

And it’s not a comedy.

Oh, there are humorous moments and a few moderately large laughs. But it’s also a movie that could bring a lump to your throat, one that inspires reflection about your own relationship and how much you may be taking your partner for granted.

Indeed, after seeing it, I sent a friend whose long-time marriage, shall we say, already has a burning fuse, an e-mail saying, “Under no circumstances should you take your wife to see this – unless you want to argue all the way home afterward.”

In some ways, what writer Vanessa Taylor and director David Frankel have done is fairly straightforward. They take a very specific couple and make them universal. It could be a primer on what couple’s therapy is about, how it works and how the results won’t always be life-changing breakthroughs – at least not right away.

Some may find that to be a cliché. But the truths that they get at can’t be dismissed, because the writing is honest and the performances are so beautifully nuanced.

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play Kay and Arnold Soames, who are celebrating their 31st wedding anniversary at home in Omaha. The night before, she spruces up at bedtime and knocks on his door – he’s been sleeping in the guest room for a number of years for his back, snoring and other reasons – to suggest, in her own timid way, a little hanky-panky. When he finally figures out what she’s asking, he puts her off with excuses of not feeling well: “I had pork for lunch,” he mumbles.

She’s unhappy and dissatisfied and finally does something about it: After buying and reading a book by a marriage therapist, she gets up her courage and presents Arnold with a brochure for a week-long session of intensive couples’ marriage therapy, with Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell), the author of the book, at his office in Maine.

Arnold, naturally, dismisses it as a ridiculous waste of money, something he has no intention of doing. But Kay is determined and, the next day, makes it a fait accompli: two tickets to Maine and a reservation for sessions with Dr. Feld. “Here’s your boarding pass,” she says with a touchingly expectant tone. “I hope you’ll go with me.”

But she adds, in a slightly firmer tone, that she’ll be going either way – and their future could rest on his decision of whether or not to accompany her.

And, finally, he does – ungraciously at first, uncomfortably throughout. The reactions that both Jones and Streep offer in their sessions with Carell – whose therapist is low-key but persistent and focused – are some of the best parts of the movie: emotionally honest, even naked, as these people finally open up about things they’ve kept to themselves for too many years.

A fellow critic mentioned to me that he hated the parts of the movie that were most like a Nancy Meyers film, and loved the ones that most resembled the raw feelings of a John Cassavetes movie. I assume Frankel felt he needed the one – like the exercise in which Kay is instructed to deliver a blowie to Arnold in a movie theater – to get at the other.

Even if the movie theater scene weren’t far-fetched, it’s played to be cutesy, when it didn’t need to be. On the other hand, it’s in service to a larger idea: that Kay admits she’s never been comfortable either giving or receiving oral sex, and that Arnold admits he’s had fantasies about Kay that go beyond the missionary position they’ve used since marriage (until they stopped having sex four or five years earlier).

The bottom line in the movie is that this is a pair of people who are both sad about the state of their marriage and unable to say so to each other. Stasis has taken over, an even keel seeming to represent the unsatisfying status quo that’s acceptable to both. No muss, so no fuss. Don’t rock the boat.

That’s not the case, however – for either of them. The best parts of this film come when each partner reveals themselves in an unexpected way, usually with anger that surprises the other partner.

Again, it’s not some magical or instantaneous catharsis that clears the decks. But it does feel real, whether it’s Jones sinking deeper and deeper into himself physically the more uncomfortable he gets with a topic, or Streep’s subtly birdlike fluttering when forced to say what she really thinks or feels. She actually starts to hum to herself at those moments, a nice touch in the physiognomy of avoidance.

Carell is equally good, because he does so little. You catch the way this therapist has to recalibrate each response, adjusting his approach minute by minute, as these people either surprise him or confirm his suspicions. He’s wonderfully unflappable and understanding, rather than being in any way broad or comedic.

There are uncomfortable truths at the heart of this marriage, as there are in the lives of many couples. Though Frankel feels compelled to soften the material at times, he’s admirably direct about how deep the problems go and how difficult the work can be to solve them.

“Hope Springs” will surprise you and, perhaps, goad you, in ways that the commercials never lead you to expect. Be prepared.

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