Don’t be fooled by the trailers that depict this as a rom-com. A poignant portrayal of two seniors who have drifted apart, not only as empty nesters, “Hope Springs” reveals a hollowed-out existence between an aging husband and wife.
In the opening scenes, we see Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) getting ready to go to bed…in separate rooms. Their sex life has virtually ended. Rapidly growing moribund, their thirty-one year-old marriage needs professional help.
Arnold, the clueless accountant who has rigid habits his wife abhors, thinks there isn’t a problem. He uses his sleep apnea and back problem as excuses for no longer having sexual lives. However, Arnold’s co-worker suggests that he wishes he had done something to save his own marriage. Scared, Arnold succumbs to the pressure and follows Kay begrudgingly to Maine for therapy. In spite of resistance and dread at the thought of revealing their sexual failings to a stranger, Arnold does want to save his marriage. As he starts feeling his wife’s hurt, he becomes aware of his own. He’s damaged and scared and you believe in him.
Enter the professional help–Dr. Feld (a surprising role superbly underplayed by Steve Carell). Kay confesses to Dr. Feld in therapy, as he listens compassionately and nonjudgmentally to her restrained pleas,and begins to understand the couple’s unhealed wounds. We watch this couple from Omaha, Nebraska attempt to rejuvenate their marriage by healing: through intimacy “exercises” suggested by Dr. Feld.
Kay and Arnold practice touching, kissing, and acting out their sexual fantasies. What could be hilarious as well as comic relief–the banana-eating scene, for example, –is timidly glossed over. But there are some remarkable scenes that pinch the heart. “Hope Springs” floats over the understandable awkwardness of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, especially when discussing sex, hidden desires and raw emotions.
There are laughs too. Streep’s and Jones’ wonderfully uneasy and highly fumbling “love” scenes make their discomfort absolutely charming. Senior sex is bravely filmed without slapstick (there are a few cheap gags) or demeaning vulgularity. This in itself is a pioneering cinematic maneuver in a world where any parental sex, let alone senior sex, is a horrifying “eww” factor. Like all good comedy, this movie goes for truth more often than laughs and makes you feel the pain that sets the laugh in motion.
In the hands of less stellar actors, “Hope Springs” could have been a major cornball of a movie, but thankfully Streep and Jones tap into something genuine, complex, and endearing in their characters’ quirks. The filmmakers vacillate between trusting their audience with this unusual theme and playing down to them. When they are bravely exploring the theme of mature sexual issues and aging, this movie is elevated to a substantial and worthwhile film–to defining a moment for a demographic mostly ignored by the film industry.