Before my review, I wanted to make a note of something that I noticed during this movie. That realization is this: I can’t think of sex without thinking of “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green, and I can’t think of “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green without thinking of President Obama (who sang a bit of it at fundraising event at the Apollo Theater earlier this year). Therefore, by the transitive property, I can’t think of sex without thinking of Barack Obama. Not quite sure of how I feel about this yet…
In any case, Meryl Streep has apparently had some sort of sexual reawakening in the past several years. Between movies like Hope Springs, It’s Complicated and the biopic of that Sex-Maniac Margaret Thatcher, many of her recent movies have showcased the 63 year old actress’ sexuality in ways that empower middle aged women and gross out younger men. That’s why when I first saw the trailer for Hope Springs, it looked a bit like it was just trying to ride the wave of comparative good will from her somewhat similarly themed role in It’s Complicated. I wasn’t planning on getting out to see it in theaters until, as I was driving home from work today, I saw a local arthouse theater that I’d never been to which was showing it. Being a fundamentally impulsive person with nothing to do on a Friday evening, I figured ”What the hell” and bought a ticket. Unsurprisingly I was by far the youngest person in the theater, and I got a few odd looks from the staff but I’m not one to be self-conscious about what movies I see so that didn’t really bother me. After spending about 1/3 of the movie averting my eyes, I actually left the theater completely satisfied that I had made the diversion. While Hope Springs is nothing profound and focuses a bit too much on the awkwardness of geriatric sex, the relatable subject matter and strong performances from Streep and Tommy Lee Jones made for a much more serious take on the stagnation of married life.
Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) have been married for 31 years, and the time has begun to take its toll on the livelihood of their relationship. Finally becoming sick of the endless routine of making Arnold breakfast and dinner then retiring to separate rooms after he falls asleep in front of the gold channel, Kay discovers a refreshingly optimistic marriage counselor (Steve Carell) and reserves a week long session for the two of them in Hope Springs, Maine. After resisting the idea vehemently, Arnold finally breaks down and joins her. Once they arrive in the small town, they start their sessions with Dr. Feld and spend the rest of the movie going back and forth between denial, frustration, confrontation, and gradual breakthroughs regarding their poorly maintained relationship.
As I said above, the performances here are solid and do a great job of keeping the audience engaged in a subject that we’ve seen explored in the movies many times before. Streep is plucky enough but we are made fully aware from time to time that her dedication to bringing the spark back to her marriage and her optimism that it will actually work is fueled more by pent up frustrations and feelings of neglect than by any inherent strengths of her character. Streep usually does best in roles that have her playing Alpha female characters (Devil Wears Prada, Doubt, The Iron Lady) and while she does have her timid charms in roles like this, I still would have to say that I prefer her in those roles.
I wasn’t always so taken with Arnold though, and as I’ll go into in the next section this isn’t so much a fault of Tommy Lee Jones as it is with the writing itself. Arnold really isn’t developed past the role of grumpy-old-man until the second half of the movie, and I really would’ve liked to see a bit more depth to his character early on. His incessant grumblings about every aspect of the trip as felt a bit too much like they were pulled from a handbook somewhere for cantankerous senior citizens. However, the strongest moments of his character and arguably the strongest moments of the film came from the sessions with Kay in which he actually participated in the process without complaining about it. In those moments it didn’t feel so much like his character was finally making an effort to open up so much as he was taking a break from his usual efforts to keep himself locked up.
Finally Steve Carell is present here in a great deal of the significant scenes of the film, but his role is solely that of the therapist and as a result he serves more as a catalyst for Kay and Arnold’s development rather than as his own character. I would have loved to see some sort of development of Dr. Feld outside of the counseling sessions, but that aside I did like enjoy that he was perfectly level headed and the questions he asked felt like things that actually needed to be asked. There are always the stereotypical “and how did that make you feel?” questions that movie shrinks ask, but it’s much more interesting when others are put into the conversation. My personal favorite of Carell’s lines was “The question you have to ask yourself is does she matter more to you than your pride does?” In the end, this is the question that has the power to make or break relationships, and its the sort of question which this movie succeeds in causing the viewer to think about with respect to their own relationships
This is where the movie loses a bit of its impact, and the main culprit is the fact that the amount of screen time that is devoted to the main character’s sex life that other more complex issues aren’t given as much time as they merit. I recognize that sex and intimacy were a large part of the issues that the couple faced and that physical affection is a much more tangible thing for the audience to focus on than emotional baggage, but more often than not it felt like the sexual aspects of the couple’s therapy was overplayed to the point where it seemed like most of the two’s marital issues were physical and not emotional. I can see how you could argue that sex was symbolic in this case, but my gripe isn’t so much with the inclusion of sexual subject matter as it was with the way the movie injected an excess of that sexual subject matter in order to bring a little more comedy into an otherwise serious film.
The Verdict: 7.0/10 Good
As someone in a serious relationship I enjoy a movie that digs in to some of the less visible and less glamorous side of marriage, even if the people involved have been on this planet substantially longer than me. There were certainly times that Kay and Arnold felt a little more like stock characters than I’d have liked, but I understand that the director David Frankel (Marley and Me, The Big Year) likes to keep some level of generic-ness to his characters to make them relatable to audiences of varied backgrounds. I’m not quite ready to shout this movie’s praise from the mountaintops but if you’re in the mood for a pretty sobering look at what happens to a traditional Nuclear Family after the kids move out and you’re prepared for some very awkward sex scenes between Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, go ahead and give this one a go.
P.S. I expect the featured book “Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man” to be a best seller if isn’t already.