Love the One You're With
One never gets too old to learn valuable life lessons. Today, I discovered that when it comes to curing the common cold, DayQuil, OJ, and bed rest have nothing on a solid, cathartic cry. When my wife and I went to see Hope Springs last night, I was exhausted, congested, and only half in the mood for a date night. By the time we left, though, I found that much of the week's oppressive, excess goo had been flushed out--and not just the stuff that belongs in a Kleenex.
The film's premise is sitcom simple: middle-aged Nebraska tax man Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) and his homemaker wife Kay (Meryl Streep) attend a week-long couples therapy session in Maine, conducted by professional counselor and best-selling author Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). Arnold, a grumpy, buttoned-up Golf Channel enthusiast, sees Feld's operation as a New Age scam designed to pit married people against each other and then fix problems that didn't previously exist. Kay views the retreat as a last-ditch effort to regain the happiness she hasn't felt in decades.
If the trailers convinced you that this is another sappy comedy about old people, crossed with Steve Carell's nine-thousandth lovable-sad-sack performance, I urge you to give Hope Springs a chance. I don't have a problem with either of those types of films (in fact, Carell has starred in two of my favorite movies of the last couple years), but I deeply appreciate the sharp left turn that screenwriter Vanessa Taylor takes with the audience's expectations.
For starters, Carell is barely in the movie. His Dr. Feld is a great character, offering what seems like an incalculable number of the actor's patented wistful, supportive smiles and asking pointed questions of Kay and Arnold. I fully expected us to detour into Feld's life, perhaps finding out that the all-knowing therapy guru has relationship troubles of his own. But this isn't Carell's show, and he makes the most out of a supporting role that could have very well been anonymous in lesser hands. He plays the therapist straight but not straight-laced, letting the looseness of his improv comedy roots inform Feld's demeanor without swinging too Cartoon Shrink territory.
The film's second great surprise is its strong indie film vibe. I honestly don't know how or why Columbia Pictures and MGM spent $30,000,000 on an hour-and-a-half drama about two people fighting through a lifetime of repression--but the fact that they did is very encouraging. I found Hope Springs often extremely uncomfortable to watch, as if Jones, Streep, and director David Frankel were holding a mirror-plated time machine up to me at the cineplex. I like to think that I have a great marriage, but in the questions that these rich characters ask each other and themselves, I had to wonder, "Am I as good a spouse as my wife deserves?" I'm not proud of the answer, and am shocked at the degree of introspection that a mainstream, end-of-summer movie inspired in me.
By the time awards season rolls around, there's a good chance Streep and Jones' performances will be overshadowed by those from bigger pictures. That would be a shame. Both are fantastic here, playing not what a Hollywood actor's idea of middle-America married people are like, but rather honest portrayals of people who've let routinized comfort extinguish the passions that once made each other light up. The defeated body language and tamped-down verbal communication are authentic and nerve-wracking, and are sharply contrasted later in the film when Arnold and Kay show signs of improvement. I was frequently distracted by the actors' notoriety, but in a good way: after years of showy roles, Jones and Streep do some of their finest work in this picture by dialing things way, way back.
I guess I shouldn't be too surprised by how terrific Hope Springs is. Years ago, Taylor wrote on the CW TV series, Everwood. That was also a story about people transplanted to a small town, virtually against their will, and forced to work through tough family issues. It was an honest, modest show marked by great performances and only the occasional burst of melodrama. Hope Springs isn't about angst-y teen love, but in a way it presses Fast Forward on a hot-and-heavy young relationship, checking in to see what happens when a couple doesn't do the frequent, hard work of maintaining their love for one another.
In the end, the movie winds up pretty much exactly where you might expect it to. But that doesn't mean it's dishonest about how it reaches the requisite happy ending--or that the journey isn't surprisingly bleak in parts. The climax is so dire, in fact, that I had flashbacks to the junk yard scene in Toy Story 3: even though I knew Woody, Buzz, and the gang weren't in danger of being melted down and recycled into video game console parts, the scene where all the characters accept their fate and hold hands had me wondering if that would be the last Toy Story film, definitively. Towards the end of Hope Springs, I wondered if Arnold truly was an irredeemable jackass, and if Kay had finally mustered the courage to leave behind a decent but unsatisfying marriage.
This would have been a real downer, but when the script switches gears at the zero hour, I didn't feel at all manipulated. It's clear that Kay and Arnold have a lot of work to do, but they're committed to wrestling with themselves in order to fight for each other. Hope Springs ends on a sweet note that's earned wholeheartedly. This movie made my heart sing with a genuine appreciation of my lovely, lovely wife and the grand life we're still so young in building together. Like Arnold and Kay's thirty-two-year-old vows, I, too, emerged from the darkness renewed.