'Hope Springs' Makes Unbearable Subject Watchable
The opening frames of Hope Springs examine life inside the Soames house where, after 31 years of marriage, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) share no romance and sleep in separate beds. Trapped in a suburban life as monotonous and depressing as their marriage, Kay, against Arnold’s wishes, buys two tickets to Hope Springs, Maine, for intensive couples' counseling with Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell) in an attempt to save her marriage.
Hope Springs is terribly difficult to watch, for just as it's no fun to see two people fall out of love, so is it equally painful to witness two people try to figure out if they’re still in it. The film is primarily driven by tasks Dr. Feld assigns the couple, from those as tame as spending a short period of time holding each other to ones as risky as acting out their wildest sexual fantasies. It is during these therapy sessions with Dr. Feld where Vanessa Taylor’s masterful screenplay patiently pulls out bits from Kay and Arnold’s past to reveal how their marriage reached its near-breaking point. In the beginning of the film, we are coaxed to sympathize with the harmless Kay, a role Streep once again knocks out of the park and plays with such sweet innocence that we almost forget she is the same woman who gave the icy portrayal of Miranda Tate in The Devil Wears Prada. But sitting somewhere between the unhappy couple and Dr. Feld, it becomes clear to the audience that this current state is not just one person’s fault.
Director David Frankel relies heavily on his three star performers to deliver where many others would have faltered, with most of the movie using only these characters onscreen accompanied by little or no background music. The sequences can be unbearable, but with Streep, Jones and Carell at the top of their games, Frankel is able to push the audience out of its comfort zone knowing they won’t turn away. A staged sexual encounter between Kay and Arnold doesn’t end with the camera panning over to the drapes while the dirty deed is done, but stays focused on the couple as they struggle in their attempt to make love for the first time in years.
At times, Hope Springs wavers from its authentic account and falls prey to the clichés of a romantic comedy. And while only audience members who have been in a long marriage can attest to the film’s authenticity, I think that if Taylor’s screenplay had gone down a different path it may have had a much more lasting effect. Then again, it probably would have been completely unwatchable, no matter how good Streep would've been.