Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep as Arnold and Kay Soames, a longtime married couple stuck in an affectionless rut in "Hope Springs."
REVIEW: More comedic drama than midlife romantic comedy, rather literally titled "Hope Springs" holds few surprises but delivers plenty of warmth. As endless fodder for pop-psychology publications and mid-afternoon TV shows, the topic of promoting passion and intimacy in long-term relationships holds a particular place not only in the current cultural zeitgeist, but also in the lives of millions of Americans, perhaps especially those attaining and surpassing middle age.
One certainty about any new Meryl Streep movie is that crowds will flock to see the Oscar-winning actress in almost any vehicle she selects, so both the film’s topicality and the top-tier casting will richly resonate with the target demographic, perhaps even spurring a wave of matinee dating nationwide. As primarily a summer counter-programming strategy, however, it may not pose a major challenge to the season’s late wide releases.
Married 31 years, Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have a comfortable, but routine marriage -- perhaps too routine Kay begins to believe, wishing for the days when her inattentive husband took more of an active interest, or at least gave her the occasional affectionate hug and kiss. For his part, Arnold sees nothing wrong with a union that’s lasted three decades and still runs smoothly, even if they do have separate bedrooms and his idea of an appropriate wedding anniversary gift for his wife is a cable TV package.
Fed up with Arnold’s oblivious attitude and feeling their marriage needs intensive care, Kay insists they leave their cozy Nebraska home for a week of in-depth couples counseling in distant Great Hope Springs, Maine, where author and therapist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) has a renowned practice based on the optimistic maxim: “You can have the marriage you want.” Arnold mightily resists, but since Kay has already spent her own savings on the trip and is threatening to attend without him, he grouchily packs his things to join her, even though almost every bone in his accountant’s cheapskate body rebels.
But Feld’s counseling office is the last place he wants to get trapped and despite the therapist’s compassionate approach, Arnold spends most of his time complaining about the process and bullying his wife about the expense and inconvenience of the trip. Things go from awkward to downright uncomfortable when Feld begins asking deeply personal questions about Kay and Arnold’s marriage, romantic history and sexual activities.
Although Feld insists “it’s not too late for anyone who really wants it and is willing to try” to save their marriage, Arnold isn’t about to discuss his deepest feelings about his wife. It’s all enough to push him practically to the point of breaking off the trip, until he realizes he may have only one chance left to restore the intimacy Kay so badly craves and is willing to do almost anything to recapture.
Covering some well-worn territory, "Hope Springs" demonstrates both a highly customary view of romance and a well-established approach to filmmaking. So it takes top actors to raise some overly familiar material above the merely prosaic. Indeed, Streep’s performance is a winning mix of vulnerability and determination as she at first tries to understand her husband’s indifference and then works to convince him to help reignite their romantic spark. Several scenes where she attempts to reassert sexual intimacy with Arnold are both heartbreaking and hilarious, particularly a risqué rendezvous in a darkened, quiet theater where her unpracticed technique goes wrong in too many different ways.
Jones has an equally challenging role that requires him to guard his feelings instead of sharing them. Rather than demonstrate Arnold’s emotions overtly, the actor relies on an appropriately gruff demeanor and conversational style, as well as a variety of nonverbal expressions and gestures, to demonstrate inner turmoil. In a refreshing dramatic role, Carell comes across as suitably calm, compassionate and realistic in his counseling role for the distraught couple. Supporting castmembers serve principally to keep the narrative and thematic threads on track, but could have provided key comedic commentary given more screen time.
"The Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel again pairs with Streep, even if "Hope" is a far more restrained comedy. Although he excels at capturing the loaded body language and facial expressions Streep and Jones expertly employ to communicate nonverbal cues, Frankel doesn’t take many chances, sticking to a highly-polished, conventional style that foregrounds the characters and their emotional arcs. While this approach suits audience expectations, it’s at the expense of any real revelations of either plot or character.
With her first produced feature script, screenwriter Vanessa Taylor ("Game of Thrones") brings a comprehensive understanding of relationship dynamics that serves the characters well, even if critical plot developments are rather too schematic. Other credits are top-notch as well, with production designer Stuart Wurtzel and costume designer Ann Roth delivering the telling details that emphasize crucial aspects of character development. A pleasing selection of pop standards predictably and unobjectionably underlines key plot points.
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