Hope Springs: A Review

I always feel a little stupid reviewing movies months after their initial release. Hope Springs came out last summer, when there were all these other movies out we wanted to see more; finally caught it via Netflix last night.  It’s one of those quiet, character-driven movies that don’t make a big splash, but are terrific and real and funny and smart.  And let me say this: if you’re like me, married for awhile, happy in your marriage but aware that it’s become a bit. . .  habitual, this is the movie for you.  Seriously, see this movie.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Arnold, a long-time middle management type, probably in some kind of insurance related business.  Married to Kay, played by Meryl Streep.  Their children are grown and out of the house, and their lives are comfortable enough.  They sleep in separate bedrooms–she always has breakfast for him before he goes to work, then a nice supper when he comes home, then he falls asleep watching the Golf Channel.  Kay is quiet, sort of shy, not terribly assertive, and, as we learn, terribly terribly unhappy.  Lonely, sad.  Their marriage rituals have become habitual, completely lacking in intimacy or passion.  These are decent, honorable people-when Arnold declares that he’s never cheated on Kay, we believe him.  When he says that he’s done his job, provided for her and their kids, well, he has.

But as the movie begins, Kay’s unhappiness–which she’s never really expressed–finally has led her to enroll them both in a marriage counseling retreat.  A therapist, Dr. Feld, (Steve Carell), has a practice in Hope Springs Maine, and Kay tells Arnold, she has cashed in a CD and bought plane tickets and arranged motel accommodations and paid four thousand dollars for a week intensive couples counseling.  And Arnold can’t believe it, and tells her he won’t go–she’s welcome to go by herself, but he will have no part of it.  But Arnold is all bluster–we know well enough that he’ll be on that plane, and indeed he is.

Arnold is a bit of a grump, a tightwad, a complainer.  They stop in a cafe for breakfast, and he orders an egg and bacon as sides.  The waitress points out that he’s just ordered the breakfast special.  He says, “I don’t want the special.  As sides, they’re a dollar less.”  He constantly complains about the therapist, about how much he’s charging them.  He initially won’t cooperate, won’t do any of the exercises Dr. Feld prescribes.  But as we see Kay quietly admitting how lonely she feels, how starved for affection and intimacy, you can also see that Arnold hears every word.  And how completely lost he would be without her.

I was reminded of my grandparents.  Ragnar and Ellek Samuelsen were married for, gosh, well over fifty years, and in all that time, they never once said they loved each other. Because I spoke Norwegian, I was pretty close to them, especially when Bestemor (my grandmother) had heart surgery and was in the hospital. Bestefar would see her every day, and I go with him, then we’d have supper together in the hospital cafeteria.  He would say to me in Norwegian ‘I love her so much. What would I do without her?’  And I’d say, ‘why don’t you tell her that?’  ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that,’ he’d respond, embarrassed.  So, troublemaker that I am, I’d go in to her her and I’d tell her what he said.  ‘Well, it’d be nice if he told me that,’ she’d say tartly.  But he never could, never did.

This movie does that, makes you think of your own marriage.  Makes you think of how easily the daily routines of life can become unimaginative, uninspired.  How marriage can become pure habit.  You feel for Arnold, having to do all this uncomfortable sharing and confessing and, eventually, snuggling.  And more.  But above all, you feel for Kay, you sense how unhappy she’s become.  How much she needs for him to, once again, really see her.

Carell was terrific, as the counselor.  No snarkiness, no irony–just a good therapist, genuinely committed to helping these two unhappy people.  But of course Jones and Streep are incredibly good together.  All those movies we’ve seen then both in, but you never sense it, you never think ‘I’m seeing two movie stars giving great performances.’  You think ‘I’m seeing Arnold, I’m seeing Kay, I’m seeing this married couple.’

A lot of their intimacy issues have to do with sexuality–they admit that they haven’t made love in over four years, and you sense that it was never all that wonderful.  The film is rated PG-13, but it has moments where it’s quite sexually explicit, often comically so.  I don’t mean that it was pornographic, anything but.  But it’s a movie about sex therapy, or perhaps more accurately, intimacy healing.  I would suggest that the ideal audience for this movie is a married couple, together for 20-plus years.

It’s terrific.  Beautifully written, superbly acted.  I’m glad I saw it.  Glad my wife and I saw it together.  And I think I have some things to work on.

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