I would love to know how “Hope Springs” got made.
Sure, David Frankel’s had a few hits now. “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Marley & Me” were both down-the-middle studio hits, but his last film, “The Big Year,” barely got a release. It’s a shame, too. It’s not a great film, but it’s a nice, gentle character piece that featured a restrained, charming performance by Jack Black and strong work by Steve Martin. Hard film to sell, though, no matter how it all plays in context, because it’s not really loaded with the sorts of moments studios count on to help cut a comedy trailer. “Hope Springs” is even more restrained and quiet than “The Big Year,” and it’s the best overall film Frankel’s made yet.
It helps that Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep are both masters of their craft, and they both are at their absolute best here. Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) have been married for 31 years, and they’ve reached a place of quiet stalemate, each day exactly the same. They barely talk, they sleep in separate rooms, and it’s been years since they were intimate. As the film starts, Kay finally finds the voice to tell Arnold that she’s unhappy, and Streep is excellent at playing a woman who is lonely within her marriage but too afraid of shaking things up to find her voice. Streep plays Kay as this bundle of tension, small eruptions of emotion occasionally flashing across her face before she manages to get them under control again. Watching the way Arnold moves through their shared life, it’s easy to understand how she gave up communication little by little. He’s basically a statue, a ghost who blows through for a few minutes in the morning and then passes out in front of televised golf in the evening.
Kay decides she can’t take it anymore, and she reaches out to a marriage counsellor who wrote a book about getting the marriage you want. Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell) holds a week-long intensive marriage seminar in a small town in Maine, and Kay spends $4000 on a reservation with him before she springs the idea on Arnold. He’s dead set against it at first, but when he realizes that she’s going to leave with or without him, he packs a bag and joins her. And up till that point in the film, it’s solid, well-observed, with both of the stars giving nicely detailed performances that really underline how awkward the silences between this couple have become. Then they have their first session with Carrell, and I braced myself for the studio comedy version of the story to kick in…
… which it most decidedly does not. At all. In fact, “Hope Springs” stays intimate all the way through, honest and even painful at times. The movie pulls no punches in the way it digs into the details of their relationship and everything that’s built up between them, and while we’ve seen Streep lay herself bare like this before, I can’t think of another film where we’ve seen this side of Tommy Lee Jones. Having Streep as his partner in this particular dance seems to bring this unexpected warmth out of him. He is heartbreaking as he resists this last-ditch attempt to redefine his marriage, and as it starts to sink in that he really could be on the verge of losing his wife and this life he’s become so comfortable with, there is a frailty to his work that I almost found shocking. He finds the grace notes to punctuate with humor, but there’s a genuine pain underneath it that he shows in these small moments that are just devastating.
Vanessa Taylor’s script is amazing in just how simple and direct and unadorned it is. At no point does it do any of the things I expected it to do. Carrell plays it dead straight, and when he talks to them, his advice rings true. There’s no magic moment where he suddenly fixes them, but instead, we see the small steps that are required to rebuild a marriage where intimacy has taken a hit, and even at the end of the film, things aren’t perfect, but they’re at least on the path towards that again. The film earns the emotional catharsis that it delivers, and Frankel deserves a hit with this one. This is smart adult filmmaking with big movie stars doing mature work, and the film never once panders with some cheap joke or phony epiphany, and for that reason, I genuinely don’t understand how any studio was willing to greenlight it. It is a lovely film, and perhaps the biggest surprise of the summer for me.
Now I need to write an entire piece about the way this film and “Eyes Wide Shut” reach the exact same conclusion about marriage…
“Hope Springs” opens in theaters everywhere today.