A schizophrenic hybrid of tee-hee sex comedy and serious relationship drama, Hope Springs finds itself hopelessly adrift in a non-committal middle ground. David Frankel’s film concerns the longstanding marriage of Connecticut couple Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), which has settled into a familiar, enervating pattern of Kay serving Arnold the same breakfast each morning (two eggs sunny-side up, a strip of bacon, coffee) and then waking him from his living room easy chair (in front of TV golf broadcasts) each night. With their two grown kids out of the house, Kay and Arnold have calcified into complacent strangers who sleep in different rooms and share no more physical contact than a perfunctory cheek peck as Arnold departs for his job at an accounting firm. It’s a situation that Kay attempts to shake up when she informs surly Arnold that she’s signed them up for an intense, week-long couples counseling program in Maine under the guidance of Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), whose book title promises, You Can Have the Marriage You Want.
Arnold bristles at this notion but begrudgingly acquiesces, and Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) gets some early mileage out of Jones’ grumpy-old-man routine, which is funniest at a Maine diner where he instinctively grouses, “Is there anything on this menu that doesn’t have lobster in it?” That cantankerousness doesn’t subside upon their first meeting with Dr. Feld, who speaks only in gentle therapist language, and who immediately asks both spouses to confront not only their lost dreams and lack of intimacy, but the scarier prospect that their love—and sex—lives might have never been as rosy as they imagined.
The problem, though, is that Hope Springs never strikes a proper balance between humor and earnestness, with Vanessa Taylor’s script vacillating uneasily between its two modes to the point of exasperation. Arnold’s squirminess at talk of orgasms and secret fantasies proves the film’s most consistently amusing element, in large part because those reactions stem naturally from truths about his emotional detachment. Yet both Kay and Arnold’s discomfort about intercourse soon proves the proceedings’ sole joke, and one that—because it feels like a means of skirting the underlying causes of their problems—leads to diminishing returns, so that by the time shy Kay ventures to a bookstore to buy a sex guide, the material feels as stolid and one-note as its protagonists’ union.
These moments aren’t nearly as funny-racy as they want to be, but worse, they interfere with the more sober Scenes From A Marriage-type drama that underlies the silliness. While Carrel is completely wasted in a role that asks him to be nothing other than milquetoast mild, Kay and Arnold’s therapy sessions provide some of the most potent elements in Hope Springs, convincingly illustrating how marriages can disintegrate not from hatred or even boredom but, rather, from a more subtle laziness that leads to a lack of communication and emotional distance. When truly digging into Kay and Arnold’s shared culpability in their circumstances—thanks to a joint mixture of fear, embarrassment and carelessness with their feelings for each other—Frankel’s film flirts with gravity, even as Frankel himself directs the material (scored to maudlin love songs) with a lethargic blandness that’s barely fit for a sitcom.
Fortunately, Streep and Jones bring a depth to Kay and Arnold that—up until a finale full of schmaltzy montages and easy-bake resolutions—ground the action in credible, lived-in reality. With both of them embodying idiosyncratic people rather than merely stereotypes, the duo, whether sitting far apart on Dr. Feld’s couch or attempting to reignite their spark through therapy exercises that require them to engage in carnal contact, exhibits a chemistry that’s consistently engaging. From Streep’s hand trembling ever so slightly as she moves to touch Arnold’s chest for the first time in years, or Jones bursting into a giddy grin upon receiving a surprise bit of oral pleasure from his wife in a movie theater, Hope Springs’ headliners treat their characters as complicated, wounded individuals rather than merely punch lines. If only the film had more consistently followed their lead.
Director: David Frankel
Writer: Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell
Release Date: Aug. 10, 2012