Ignore the lame chick-lit title and the misleading twee trailer….and rest assured that no one in this movie is actually called Hope. Rather, Great Hope Springs is the town in Maine where Nebraska housewife Kay (Meryl Streep) drags Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), her husband of 31 years for a week of intensive couples counseling. Their therapist is Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) a best-selling author and seasoned marriage guidance pro.
What transpires in this funny, sweet romance is beyond what any simple plot description can offer. Hope Springs is about the small moments in a marriage, the acknowledgement of the painful truths that exist in every long-standing relationship, about the distances that grow and calcify between partners and about the bridges that can be painstakingly rebuilt if the spirit is willing.
TV writer Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones) has delivered a clever, astute script that will have more than a few audience members shuddering in recognition at Kay and Arnold’s cold war of marital discontent. Mind you, it’s probably true to say that Arnold isn’t discontented…he’s too disconnected from his feelings to question his own happiness. He depends on Kay in much the same way we rely on our toes to walk: we don’t think about them much but would sure miss them if they were gone. And Kay obliges by being the perfect wife until one day she isn’t. Over time her routine has become a rut and she decides she wants “a real marriage”. It’s hard to argue with her after witnessing what the marriage has become….separate bedrooms, silent meals and refrigerators as anniversary presents.
If this sounds like the set-up for many a trite sitcom, then we can thank the nuanced script for raising the material above the bland and humdrum. Kay and Arnold’s problems may be of the everyday variety but Taylor’s screenplay certainly isn’t. And let’s not forget Streep and Jones….two of the best “senior” actors out there who bring authenticity, humor and pathos to their roles without stooping to condescension. Streep’s Kay is quiet and steadfast but she’s no pushover. The silences, the looks, the raised eyebrows, the blushes….the comic timing is vintage Streep yet the character is distinct and alive.
Jones is known in Hollywood as a man of few words and little tolerance for frippery. He inhabits the role of Arnold, a man more at home with the golf channel than his wife, with frightening ease. But watching Arnold come alive through the course of the film is a case of acting genius….so subtle that it’s easy to overlook the work that Jones puts in. And how great to see Jones finally play a romantic lead! When he smiles, which he rarely seems to do in his films, it’s like the clock has been turned back and we see the handsome young man he used to be and we understand why Kay wants him still. The scenes of therapy with Steve Carell are astounding in their sincerity and truth and Carell masterfully makes us forget every dopey twit he’s ever played.
Watching other people squirm as they attempt to access long-buried feelings and as they fumble towards some kind of entente gives us a certain sense of schadenfreude, even if we recognize ourselves in their efforts. Anyone who’s ever weathered the ups and downs of a relationship will laugh at Kay and Arnold’s predicament even as they mentally jot down notes for future reference. Hope Springs is warm and loving and funny as hell.
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