Most Hollywood romantic comedies focus on young couples in the early stages of the dating game, typically in ways so heightened that they might as well be classified as fairytales. I say this well aware that I tend to go easy on such films because … well, because some of us like fairytales. Nevertheless, the great pleasure of Hope Springs is that the lead characters have been married for thirty years, and therefore have credible life experience to lend to the story. It’s not a story about playfully falling in love for the first time; it’s about learning to fall in love all over again after a long, emotionally barren dormant period. The audiences that see the common, more youth-oriented romcoms are unlikely to relate to this film, but then again, who’s to say mature moviegoers aren’t deserving of their own brand of entertainment?
We meet New Englanders Kay and Arnold Soames (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones), the former a clerk at an intimate clothing boutique, the latter a successful business executive. After thirty years of marriage, things have devolved into a stale routine devoid of intimacy and communication. Every morning, Kay cooks up a slice of bacon and two eggs sunny side up for Arnold, who sits at the kitchen table with his head buried in a newspaper. Every night, after dinner, Arnold falls asleep in front of the TV, which is tuned to the Golf Channel. We eventually learn that they have not had sex in nearly five years, although we immediately see that the only way they touch is when Arnold gives Kay a mechanical peck on the cheek before going to work. The first scene shows Kay unsuccessfully trying to initiate sex; it doesn’t take us long to figure out that they’re sleeping in separate bedrooms.
Kay, soft-spoken and understandably regretful, begins researching ways of repairing her relationship with Arnold. This soon leads to the discovery of a marriage counselor named Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell), whose office is located in the quaint seaside town of Great Hope Springs, Maine, where it seems the locals have come to expect married tourists in need of therapy. They would include a bookshop owner, a waitress, and a bartender played by Elisabeth Shue. Kay signs both herself and Arnold up for Feld’s week-long round of sessions, using her own money to pay the sizeable fee. Arnold naturally wants nothing to do with it, but of course he begrudgingly relents and catches up with his wife at the last possible second – just as the airplane is being seated, to be specific.
Carell’s portrayal of Feld, with his calm and very matter-of-fact style of delivery, will undoubtedly leave him open to criticism and mockery. In my personal opinion, I’ve never seen a more accurate depiction of a therapist, least of all in a romantic comedy. Real life therapists often adopt a soothing tone of voice, presumably to make the patient or patients feel less threatened by the situation. Apart from that, his dialogue is essentially a series of questions, ones I would fully expect an actual marriage counselor to ask. He’s not a quack spewing psychobabble in a desperate ploy for laughs; he probes, he listens, he responds accordingly, and he genuinely wants to help. I was expecting a broad parody, but instead I got a fully realized character who’s just as likeable as he is insightful.
Jones is in remarkably good form given the fact that he’s known for strong roles. In this film, he plays an unemotional man who only gradually reveals his decency and shows just how vulnerable he truly is. The idea of couple’s therapy is not within his comfort zone. He initially has no idea why his wife is unhappy, and even when he finally does begin to understand her, the process of working towards a solution will not be easy for him. As for Streep, you have to marvel at her chameleon-like ability to be any character; not too many actresses can seamlessly transition from an Anna Wintour send-up to Julia Child to Margaret Thatcher to a housewife looking to rekindle the fire. Watching Kay, we see a woman who has made just as many mistakes as her husband and is sincere in her efforts to be a better partner.
It can be argued that the film isn’t as daring as it could have been, given the wide range of issues common to marriages. It goes for feel-good entertainment, working itself towards an ending most audiences will be expecting as soon as the opening scene, perhaps even sooner. But since when was feel-good entertainment something to be scoffed at? What Hope Springs lacks in originality is made up for in charm, strength of character, pitch-perfect casting, and wonderful performances. All the leads are reliably good, but I was nonetheless surprised by Carell, whose take on a therapist is not only likeable but authentic as well. Never once did he or the filmmakers reduce his character to a typecast we’re made to laugh at rather than with. He’s a professional man doing his job and doing it well.