Directed by: David Frankel
Written by: Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Elisabeth Shue, Jean Smart, Mimi Rogers
Romantic comedies typically end with the heterosexual (or more recently, gay or lesbian) couple, committed, monogamous, and happy (if not ecstatic), a future of bliss, wedded or otherwise, awaits them with certainty or near-certainty. Romantic comedies are meant for mass consumption, of course. They sell a particular kind of borderline-fantastical fiction, but that’s why romantic comedies, despite their usual, frequent drubbings by film critics, remain popular with moviegoers. But what happens after the happily ever after? In the real world, relationships can and often do stagnate, leading to singular or mutual indifference (or outright contempt). In HOPE SPRINGS, David Frankel’s relationship comedy-drama, a happily ever after couple is no longer happy and hasn’t been for quite some time. They’re headed for divorce after more than thirty years of marriage.
HOPE SPRINGS centers on Kay (Meryl Streep), a disaffected fifty-something housewife, and her husband, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), an accountant by profession and a curmudgeon by disposition. He complains about everything. He sweats the small stuff. Kay and Arnold no longer sleep in the same bedroom. Arnold used a bad back to move into the guest room and never moved back into the bedroom he once shared with Kay. Their lives, alone and together, are ruled by mind-numbing, soul-crushing routine. Arnold awakes at the same time every day, has the same breakfast every day, goes to work at the same time every day, and returns home with the same punctuality where Kay awaits with the same bland, unexciting dinner. Arnold rebuffs Kay’s attempts at affection.
Whatever the cause, Arnold’s casual, daily disrespect wears Kay down. While Arnold seems content to live out their remaining years by the same routine, Kay isn’t. A trip to a local bookstore (remember those?) and the self-help aisle leads to the discovery of a book by a therapist, Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), who also runs an intensive couples therapy program out of his office in Maine. It’s all Kay apparently needs to spur her to give Arnold an ultimatum: couples therapy with Feld or the dissolution of their marriage. Arnold doesn’t quite go kicking and screaming to Maine, but he fights, first Kay, then Feld, all the way to the relationship enlightenment/nirvana he needs to attain if in fact he wants to save their marriage.
Working from Vanessa Taylor’s script, director David Frankel (THE BIG YEAR, MARLEY & ME, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA) takes a generally unobtrusive approach to the subject, using wide angles and relatively long takes to capture the subtleties of Streep and Jones’ performances. The emphasis switches from what Kay and Arnold say or don’t say (subtext) and what their bodies and facial expressions say (or betray, depending on the circumstances). Something as minor as their relative closeness or distance from each other during their sessions in Feld’s office says as much about what they’re thinking or hoping to avoid thinking about each other and whether their marriage can be saved. The talk shifts from backstories to emotional intimacy to physical intimacy between a fifty-something.
The frankness of the therapy sessions between Kay, Arnold, and Feld will prove disturbing to some moviegoers, especially if they see not themselves in Kay or Arnold, but their parents or even perhaps themselves in 20 or 30 years (depending on the current state of their romantic lives, that is). That frankness leads to a surprising amount of honesty about long-term relationships and the difficulties inherent in maintaining emotional and physical intimacy. With Streep, Jones, and to a lesser extent, Carell (we never see Feld outside the office) adding depth and delicacy to Taylor’s script, HOPE SPRINGS only really falters when genre conventions dictate specific, periodic conflicts and/or misunderstandings. Frankel’s (or the studio’s) decision to use folk-pop songs when a traditional score would suffice hurts more than it helps. But that’s a minor problem in what’s ultimately a surprisingly strong, perceptive, and poignant comedy-drama.