While you wouldn’t know it from the marketing campaign, Hope Springs is not a laugh riot about the foibles of middle-age couples trying to regain that long-lost spark. It is, rather, a surprisingly supple, often moving treatise on diminished expectations, hope and self-confidence—and by that, I mean the sort of confidence evinced most often on the big screen by strapping gods and lissome goddesses of a much younger age demographic.
Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), married 31 years, have gotten routine down to a science: Kay is dressed and coiffed and at the griddle when Arnold descends to the breakfast nook to inhale one egg, one piece of bacon, and the morning news. Then he sets off to his accounting firm, letting Kay know at what hour he’ll return. For her part, she lets him know the night’s menu, and then scurries off to dump the remains of his morning meal into the compactor while contemplating how to fill her day. An anniversary dinner with the kids offers a clue to their interaction: When asked what they got each other, they say nothing before remembering that, oh yeah, we gifted each other a cable-TV upgrade.
Fed up, Kay heads to the bookstore to pick up some self-help books, whereupon she gets the idea to book a weeklong intensive therapy session in Hope Springs, Maine, with renowned sex doc Feld (Steve Carell). Arnold grunts and groans and raises his fists to the heavens, but ultimately joins her, no doubt jolted by this seeming act of defiance on the part of his normally complacent wife. The sessions with Feld are often amusing. Streep and Jones play these scenes masterfully, but what makes the movie tick, and often makes us cringe, are the moments when they have to reveal their sexual fantasies and past experiences, good and bad. Dr. Feld gives them assignments, like hugging each other for several minutes, something seemingly so benign as to make the actual act of getting there all that much more humorous (if also very human).
Hope Springs, which was written by Vanessa Taylor with a keen eye and ear for details that reveal much about the characters, has a few clunky moments—most noticeably when the soundtrack provides unnecessary cues to how we’re supposed to be feeling at a particular moment. Streep and Jones, and Carell for that matter, are so good in this that such prompting isn’t needed.
And yet the movie admirably refrains from the providing the expected “aha!” moment when it all clicks again for Kay and Arnold, instead leaving us to wonder whether this intervention is really going to work—and if it is even worth it. Arnold is a spoiled pain in the ass, but, in what had to have been an actors’ dream even as it must be a man’s nightmare, the role develops in such a way that we see the character’s fears, we hear his frustration, we understand him. The movie is a surprisingly frank take on a subject the baby boomers and their next generation are well aware of, as evidenced by the countless ads for sexual enhancement products we see in the media, but it nudges forward, refusing to allow us to turn out the light, so to speak, on the ick factor we’d expect from imagining our own parents “doing it” in their dotage.