Getting married is easy. Staying married is difficult.
Arnold and Kay Soames have been together for three decades. It’s not going swimmingly, though neither is especially keen on acknowledging just how static the state of their union has become over time.
Kay's unhappiness begins to crystallize after she bravely ventures one night into Arnold’s bedroom — they’ve been sleeping apart for years — and tentatively suggests that she could stay. Her surprised husband turns her down, muttering that he had pork for lunch and it didn’t agree with him.
This long-married couple's future is the heartbeat of Hope Springs, a terrific new movie starring Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep. What’s especially refreshing about the film is that it’s one of the rare times in recent memory that a mainstream Hollywood movie features older characters in the primary roles and actually takes them seriously.
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The trailer and TV ads for Hope Springs make it look like a comedy. It’s not. Not by a long shot.
Hope Springs has plenty of amusing scenes, but it’s by far the most serious and insightful examination of marriage seen in a popular movie in years. It brings to mind both Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1973) and the highly regarded 1979 TV movie Too Far to Go, which was based on a series of linked short stories by John Updike.
In all three projects, the pain up there on the screen is real and recognizable. Hope Springs is going to make viewers wince as moments of desolation, along with moments of happiness and humor, from their own homes are mirrored in the lives of Arnold and Kay.
At the start of the film, the two are about to celebrate their 31st wedding anniversary. He’s a successful businessman; she’s a saleswoman at a clothing store, a job she took after raising their two children, now adults. Kay is fed up and unhappy. She wants a real marriage instead of the emotionally empty cohabitation that their union has become. “When was the last time that you touched me and it wasn’t just for a picture?” she asks her husband. Ouch.
Kay makes a reservation for the two of them to go to Great Hope Springs, a small resort town in Maine, to attend a weeklong marriage renewal counseling program with Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), a ballyhooed couples therapist. Arnold goes only with the greatest of reluctance and initially clams up as Dr. Feld asks probing questions about their sex and emotional lives. Over the course of the week, though, in different ways and at different times, both Arnold and Kay realize how they have let each other down over the years and what it might take to get things right. But can either muster the courage to cross the chasm that's grown between them and make their marriage viable once again?
As written by Vanessa Taylor (TV’s Game of Thrones and Bobby & Jack) and directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), Hope Springs raises all kinds of provoking questions. What role do sex and sexual adventurousness play in a marriage? How much time should be “me time” and “us time?” What constitutes showing that you care? (It is one of the film’s running jokes that Kay wishes Arnold would give her something other than a water heater, an expanded TV cable package and similar impersonal, household improvement gifts to mark her birthdays and their anniversaries.)
It’s not as if Hollywood hasn’t wrestled with wedded bliss before. Several movies have looked at marriages fast heading south, including The War of the Roses (1989), The Story of Us (1999) and Spanglish (2004) as well as various Woody Allen titles. Carell himself starred a year ago in the enjoyable comedy, Crazy, Stupid, Love, in which he played a long-married husband who briefly separates from his wife before reconciling.
Most of these had a bitter edge or self-pitying mind-set. Spanglish and Crazy, Stupid, Love were told mostly from the male point of view. In all of the films, the characters were in their 30s and 40s.
That’s where Hope Springs differs. While the story establishes that Kay and Arnold are in their mid-50s, Streep and Jones are both a decade older in real life (she just turned 63; he'll be 66 next month). The years looming ahead for the couple are most definitely going to be fewer than those behind them. If these two are going to figure out how to be happy together, they had better do it now.
Streep and Jones are both working at the top of their considerable games. Jones makes his character simultaneously weary and wary, a combination that could keep Arnold from taking the steps necessary to reclaim his marriage. Streep, fuller of figure here and with a slightly distracted air, turns Kay into a timid woman who decides she doesn’t want to be all that docile any longer.
The highest compliment one can pay their performances is to say that you know these people; you pass their doubles on the street and in the mall daily. If you’ve always wondered about that older couple sharing a meal at a restaurant but not really talking, here’s your chance to meet them.
Between this film and last spring’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which so far has grossed $130.5 million worldwide, one would think Hollywood might wake up, smell the coffee and realize that folks past 50 go to the movies too and deserve to be portrayed up on screen.
Sadly, that most definitely is not the case. But that’s a topic for another time.