Hope Springs is a low-key, small-budget film that for many audience members might be the most important film they see all year. It’s not as glitzy as director David Frankel’s previous film with Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada — it’s just funny, achingly poignant and unforgettable.
Kay (Meryl Streep) is a pretty, charming Omaha homemaker her mid-50s. She’s been married to high-power tax accountant Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) for 31 years.
The romance has gone so completely out of their marriage that they sleep in separate rooms. When Kay puts on a sexy negligee to entice Arnold to invite her into his bed, he cruelly dismisses her. You can literally feel the anguish in the audience as they see the devastated look on Kay’s face. No wonder the fastest rising segment of the population getting divorces today is older couples — and it’s often women who initiate the breakup.
“Can you change a marriage?” Kay asks Eileen (Jean Smart), her friend and co-worker at the local Coldwater Creek clothing store.
“Change is hard,” Eileen replies, convinced it’s impossible to improve a long-term unhappy marriage.
But hope springs eternal for Kay. Most importantly, don’t ask me why, she loves Arnold, even though he’s a penny-pinching, emotionally dead curmudgeon. Kay finds a book entitled, You Can Have the Marriage You Want, by Dr. Feld from the Intensive Couples Counseling Center. Inspired, Kay cashes in a CD and sends in $4,000 for a weeklong therapy retreat at Great Hope Springs in Maine. In the mornings, couples get therapy together and then they have the rest of the day and evening to do whatever they want to, in town, or in their motel rooms. Arnold at first ridicules Kay’s unhappiness, claiming that because he’s never been unfaithful, he’s a good husband. (Loud groans from the women in the audience.)
Dr. Feld (in an appealing performance by Steve Carrell) is the perfect therapist — accepting, encouraging, nonjudgmental.
At first Arnold wants to smash his face in, but in time, seeing the depth of Kay’s misery, he agrees to try Dr. Feld’s advice. Alas, the road to marital revival is not smooth. It’s potholed with painful secrets and ancient disappointments, and a lot of ignorance about sex.
A story about intimacy has to have its ludicrous moments and Hope Springs has quite a few. Kay is asked by Dr. Feld what her opinion on oral sex is — does she like to give it, or get it? She stares at him, a confused and embarrassed realization on her face — she can’t answer the question because she never thought about it. Streep’s brilliant silent look was so painfully funny that I almost fell off my seat. Later, Kay gets adventurous with Arnold in a darkened movie theatre. Popcorn flies all over and Arnold’s zipper gets stuck — yep, senior sex is just as hilarious as adolescent sex, maybe more so.
During one session Arnold is more obnoxious than usual and Kay rushes out alone into the pouring rain. She ends up at a local bar, crowded with fishermen. The bartender (the wonderful and underused Elizabeth Shue) listens kindly to Kay’s tale of woe. Then she loudly calls for a show of hands of everyone in the bar who is not having sex. All the men raise their hands. Funny, yes, but oh, so sad, too.
Eventually, because they’re in a movie, Kay and Arnold finally, and I do mean finally — since it’s after a heartbreaking setback — have sex again. Tentative and terrified, as it really would be after so many years apart, but lovely and sweet as everyone in the audience is hoping. (Happy sniffles throughout the audience, including me.)
Hope Springs is a wonderful film. And, for couples of all ages, it’s a chance to get 100 minutes of priceless and entertaining marriage counseling. Dr. Feld tells Kay and Arnold, “Every great marriage has terrible years. You’re tempted to give up. Don’t.”