Did that make you shiver and go “yeeesh”? Then you’ve got a good sense of how it feels to sit through this movie.
Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married for three decades and, like anything that’s lasted that long, inertia has as much to do with their daily dealings with each other as anything else. Arnold now sleeps in a different bed in a different room (because of back troubles and snoring, allegedly) from Kay, and to her it’s symbolic of the emotional distance between them. Seeking help to repair their marriage, she finds a book by Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) and is so moved by it that she signs herself and Arnold up for a week of intensive couple’s counseling. At first Arnold is exceptionally resistant — it’s expensive, it’s in Maine (the couple lives in Omaha), therapy is lame. But a divorced colleague helps to convince him that even a week of talking about your feelings is better than winding up alone in a condo. So Arnold goes — but he isn’t happy about it. He is hostile to the therapy sessions and grumpy about everything else (the price of the breakfast special at the nearby diner, for example). Slowly, however, he, well, he is marginally less hostile.
The movie makes a bit of a joke of the idea that one of the major draws of this small Maine town is Dr. Feld — when Arnold and Kay bicker in the diner, the waitress guesses that they need to be out of there quickly to meet with Feld. It’s a minor thing that is both a little cutesy and that the movie doesn’t have nearly as much fun with as you’d expect. But then, I suspect fun isn’t the point. This movie isn’t a comedy and it isn’t really romantic. It’s a drama, I suppose, but the tone of the movie is so light you expect there to be more laughs or at least more cleverness in the dialogue. I found myself waiting for the joke or at least the banter, but then again part of the problem between Kay and Arnold is that they don’t talk. So where you’re expecting funny dialogue or revealing dialogue or, you know, dialogue, you instead get these unfinished half sentences — “you’re just so...” — followed buy pursed lips and a character looking off into the air. Which, OK, is exactly how difficult marriage conversations can go, but I’m not sure that makes for particularly electrifying cinema.
Eventually, we get to the sex talk and the fact that Kay and Arnold aren’t really having any. It’s a solid plot point — that a couple could, after all these years, have fallen out of the practice of romance and sex — but it makes for some awkward storytelling. Sure, Streep is good as the woman unsure of how to rekindle romance, but Jones’ sex-shy Arnold is thinly drawn. So much so that I’m not even sure it’s correct to say he’s sex-shy. Read another way, he wants a healthy romantic life with Kay but doesn’t think she wants one. Or something. It’s all played out with grimaces and sighs and those half-finished sentences, so while the movie seems to want to address the big issues about marriage, you feel like it never really does more than dance around it. So then you’re stuck watching scenes of two people awkwardly trying to regain physical intimacy but in a way that isn’t played for either pathos or laughs. And, because the characters have given us so little of themselves, we don’t even feel a lot is at stake in the question of will they or won’t they. It is moderately uncomfortable to watch, in the same way that it was to watch the Gores kiss at the 2000 convention. Regardless of your age, I suspect the feeling one gets watching this movie is roughly: We want our parents to love each other but that doesn’t mean we want to have to watch them cuddle.
OK performances can not save this movie, particularly when it comes to Steve Carell, who does a great job of playing a judgment-free therapist but is so judgment- and emotion-free that he almost doesn’t register as a presence. Hope Springs feels like it is all setup and character sketch, with very little actual movie. C
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving sexuality. Directed by David Frankel and written by Vanessa Taylor, Hope Springs is an hour and 40 minutes long and is distributed by Sony.