Even the most vocal detractors of David Frankel’s “Hope Springs” must recognize the miracle of the film’s existence. This is a studio-funded production about the sex lives of old people that is neither an Oscar-hungry downer nor an outrageous farce. It approaches an issue that affects married couples over 40–hardly Hollywood’s target demographic–honestly and empathetically. Certainly, the participation of seasoned actors like Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones helped secure the financing, but allow me to repeat: This is a movie about old people’s sex lives. That it’s playing in 2,400 theaters across the country is already a victory for audiences who would like to see more than just Transformers ripping each other apart.
The movie is unlikely to earn very many of the aforementioned detractors, however, because its wealth of positive qualities is undeniable. The list begins with Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay, which is equal parts insightful and intimate. Taylor’s premise finds the aging Kay (Streep) forcing her longtime husband Arnold (Jones), who sleeps in a separate bedroom and pays more attention to the Golf Channel than Kay, into a week of intensive marital counseling with a renowned psychiatrist (Steve Carell). This set-up could have lent itself to cheap jokes–obvious gags exaggerating Arnold’s old-fogey status or depicting Carrell’s psychiatrist as a new-age cartoon would have been easy to implement–but Taylor cares deeply about the characters and resists every temptation to trivialize them. “Hope Springs” seriously explores topics like the profound differences between men and women (especially of a sexual nature), the ways that marriage can be antithetical to intimacy, and how life routines become depressing.
That’s not to say that “Hope Springs” is extraordinarily cerebral or emotionally tasking in its depiction of very real marital problems. Director Frankel strikes a tone that is respective of its characters’ hardships while recognizing that they will almost certainly be resolved in the end — a dynamic which makes the audience more receptive to the movie’s themes because they are not presented with an alienating air of self-importance. In fact, there is even quite a bit of humor. Screenwriter Taylor may reject the opportunities for obnoxious jokes mentioned above, but she is nonetheless able to cultivate comedic relief that emerges organically from the dramatic situations. A scene that finds Kay attempting to fellate Arnold in a cinema lightens the mood considerably, mainly due to the shock of a movie depicting such a sexual transaction between oldsters, but it also functions as an authentic moment of emotional transformation for the characters. In spite of the serious issues that it tackles, “Hope Springs” could legitimately be classified as a romantic-comedy.
Needless to say, the performances are excellent. Even though “Hope Springs” is far from the Oscar-bait that Streep is known for appearing in, she delivers what may be her best performance of the New Millennium. Streep demonstrates an uncanny ability to find subtle character nuances in every situation that, like the script, say things both about Kay herself and about the way that women approach romantic relationships in general. Equally skillfully, Jones is able to ensure that Arnold never becomes the villain of the film — no small task given that “Hope Springs” is told from Kay’s emotional POV and was made with the female viewer in mind. And Steve Carell completely disappears into his crucial supporting role, mastering the affectations of a therapist so perfectly that he could probably start a successful practice in real-life with no further training.
“Hope Springs” may seem a little sleepy to certain viewers, but that’s merely a reaction to the fact that it is decidedly different from any other movie to have come out of Hollywood in recent years. The film operates on its own terms, and provided one willingly adjusts, the slower pace and quiet introspection of the characters become soothing. Perhaps the film would have achieved even greater resonance had it been more critical of its characters–particularly Carell’s Dr. Feld, who is depicted as no less than a savior to marriages everywhere–but Frankel and Taylor’s ability to keep their material as commercial as possible, without sacrificing its core messages, is part of their success. Not only is “Hope Springs” a substantive cinematic achievement unto itself, it’s also a bold symbol of the fact that mass appeal films don’t have to be lowest-common-denominator films.