For Kay and Arnold Soames, happily ever after has turned into something that feels a lot more like humdrum forever more. As the Omaha couple celebrates their thirty-first anniversary, Kay, played by Meryl Streep, and Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones, are beginning to realize that somehow during the decades they have spent together, they have drifted very far apart.
She sells clothes at Coldwater Creek; he’s a tax attorney. She silently cooks bacon and eggs, while he spends his time reading Golf magazine and watching videos to help him perfect his putting. They have been sleeping in separate rooms ever since he hurt his back a few years ago. But now Kay is beginning to wonder if they will ever get back together.
She says she wants to have a real marriage again; Arnold insists that things have changed and they’re not 22 years old anymore. Kay wants to attend intensive couples counseling with therapist and best-selling author Bernard Feld, played by Steve Carell. Although Arnold is not at all interested at first, he joins Kay on the trip to Great Hope Springs in Maine, a hamlet that Arnold notes “looks like it was built by Hansel and Gretel.”
So begins director David Frankel’s Hope Springs, a movie that tackles a surprisingly touchy topic in a smart, sensitive way. Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay manages to be quite funny without trivializing a serious situation. Kay and Arnold aren’t Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – they’re not continually at each other’s throats or waiting to expose each other’s vulnerabilities. They’re just a sixty-something couple that’s become too used to each other, too comfortable with conventionality and much too accustomed to spending time in their own shells.
At first, it seems Hope Springs is going to be one of those wacky therapy movies, like the un-watchable Robin Williams disaster License to Wed from a few years ago. But Carell actually plays the straight man here. While the movie is full of humor, the strategies that Feld uses to help Kay and Arnold rediscover that old spark are anything but ridiculous. In fact, this might be a film that actually helps save a few marriages.
Streep is sensational, although why would you expect anything else. In a part many actresses might have simply finessed or played with a touch of campiness, she goes for unvarnished honesty, giving us a woman who has slowly lowered her expectations bit by bit over the years and now finds she hasn’t got much to look forward to at all. As for Jones, he’s equally outstanding, moving beyond the grumpy, tired career man stereotype to find some real suppressed anger and anxiety underneath the argyle sweaters and well-worn bifocals.
Jones and Streep produce a kind of chemistry that makes you believe they really have spent years together; the way they exchange glances and read each other’s unspoken messages is fascinating and often hilarious. They speak volumes through their quivery hands, awkwardly placed arms and the multitude of sighs and groans that express every possible kind of exasperation.
The movie is more or less a two-person show, with Carell – who is also just fine in his own right – very much in a supporting role. Aside from being extremely funny, Hope Springs has almost nothing in common with Streep and Frankel’s previous collaboration, The Devil Wears Prada. That was a fun, formulaic comedy. This is quieter, more complex and ultimately superior film that seems like a curious choice for the summer schedule. That is, until you see the morning-after smile Streep produces to signal Kay’s return to romance. That expression is every bit as dynamic as any explosion in any superhero movie.