By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
So this guy who wins 300 million dollars runs into the house yelling, “Honey, we won the lottery, pack your bags.” Thrilled, his wife asks where they’re going. He replies, “I don’t know where you’re going, but pack your bags.” Kay, the romantically disappointed wife in “Hope Springs,” would politely laugh at that joke. But inside she’d be crying.
Portrayed with heartrending conviction by Meryl Streep, Kay has, in the last five years or so, been suffering in silence. Her marriage of thirty-one years to Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) is on automatic pilot, its routine status delineated by perfunctory pecks on the cheek as he leaves for work each morning. Even the small talk has been getting smaller.
Oh, they’re nice enough folks, and apparently dedicated to each other, even if Arnold never returned from the guestroom after a brief back injury prompted the prescription. And, like the majority of marrieds from Bangor to San Diego, these two Nebraskans simply don’t talk about it. But of late, the 800-lb. gorilla has begun to weigh on Kay.
Peering into the den from the kitchen where she tidies after the dinner she nightly cooks, the sight is always the same. Ensconced in his easy chair, the TV set to the Golf Channel, her sixty-something CPA has fallen asleep. It’s in her eyes. He is and he isn’t the man she married. Oh, tempus fugit. They should be running on the beach. Yeah, that kind of love.
Feasible or not, a light goes on above her head. The keeper of romance’s flame, she will no longer live a life of sexless desperation…at least not without a fight. And she’s going to do it without upsetting frugal hubby too much. Pulling her own $4,000 out of savings, she purchases plane fare and a week’s worth of couples therapy in Hope Springs, Maine.
She’s going with or without him. It’s nip and tuck right up until flight time. But, whew, he shows. Score one for the guys. Of course he carps all the way, and it doesn’t stop even after they begin sessions with the purported panacea. He is the famous Dr. Bernard Feld, recognizable from the ubiquitous book jacket photo that dots America’s store windows.
Played by Steve Carell in a rare but solid dramatic role, the calm, smiley, self-assured authority on marriage resurrection has his work cut out for him. Resentful, challenged, and doubtless hurt by the failure their presence implies, Tommy Lee Jones’s Arnold is as close-mouthed as a stubborn child. He just can’t help railing against the whole shebang.
However, propelled by Kay’s honest determination and Arnold’s desire not to upset her, the sessions continue. The layers of built-up rationalization slowly peel away like onion skin, layer by layer. Moments of discovery, oftentimes uneasy, are rivaled by even more uncomfortable setbacks…in the doc’s office, around town, and, ahem, back at the motel.
Note: This is a comedy, but in the classical sense….meaning it’s not a farce. The few laughs are the result of sad truths brought to light. Vanessa Taylor’s script is ripe with the sort of button-pushing complaints served up with tea and sympathy on afternoon TV by any number of self-help marriage gurus. But the pigeonhole analysis is cleverly wrought.
Miss Streep is as phenomenal as ever as the genteel, injured party. Her facial expressions and wonderfully subtle, Midwestern lilt are alone worth the price of admission. And while Mr. Jones is a bit slow getting out of the gate, his attempt to play curmudgeonly without becoming a total Oil Can Harry to our heroine exudes solidly professional poise.
But again, these are stereotypes, albeit full of controversy, and rampant with specific situations turned into generalizations. Thus, confronted with its serious face and absent the humor the trailer led us to expect, we hope there may be wisdom forthcoming…that finally, after 35,000 years, we will be apprised of a way to end the war between the sexes.
Yet reality counsels that said wish would be a mite pretentious. Fact is we know no more about love than we do about the concept of infinity. Whether you deem yourself a hopeless romantic, the brunt of biology’s greatest joke or something in-between, you suspect the ultimate epiphany about La Difference will not be delivered at the Bijou.
Still, reason and common sense don’t deter us from developing a rooting interest in Kay and Arnold. Anticipating that director Frankel isn’t going to pull an Ingmar Bergman on us, we’d like to see them live happily ever after, partially because they seem like good people, but mostly to satisfy a human need to believe that “Hope Springs” eternal.
“Hope Springs,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by David Frankel and stars Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell. Running time: 100 minutes
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