Sex continues to saturate our culture, even as Viagra ads saturate our airways. Between obsession and performance, the disconnect is glaringly obvious, especially in a population where aging baby-boomers, once proud advocates of free love, are discovering that costs have soared. Of course, since the absence of sex ain’t a sexy topic, that disconnect is not much discussed (which explains why those Cialis commercials are full of happy smiles but bereft of a single spoken word). So, at least credit Hope Springs with the courage to enter the void and examine the vacuum. Alas, the film itself suffers from performance issues, but say this for it: Seldom has a failed movie possessed such a fascinating personality.
A split personality, in this case. The billing and the trailers hint at a broad comedy, but it assuredly isn’t that. Conversely, the work of the starring principals – Meryl Streep (Kay) and Tommy Lee Jones (Arnold) are both superb – suggests an intense drama cum character study, yet the script ultimately lacks the depth to back up its actors. Finally, the atrociously unearned ending reflects a desperate attempt to fuse the divisions, but only succeeds in magnifying them. No doubt, the picture fails. So why does it fascinate?
Be patient, because the answer is slow to emerge. The early frames simply set the stage. The place is Omaha, Neb., and the marriage is as flat as the landscape. More than 30 years of togetherness have pulled Kay and Arnold apart: The kids have flown, the nest is empty, their bedrooms are separate. There’s no passion left, not even enough to fuel an argument, and love has given way to habit, to the daily ritual of salaried work (he’s a penny-pinching accountant, she toils in retail), endless suppers (she cooks, he eats) and nocturnal dates with the droning TV (she paces in the kitchen, he snores in the den).
Although Arnold has long embraced this sorry state, Kay has not, and thus books a flight to far-off Maine where, in the coastal town of Hope Springs, hope resides in the promised expertise of a “couple’s counsellor.” Reluctantly, grumblingly, he joins her on the plane.
So far, this seems like a pro forma start to a basic rom-com, old folks’ version, where the impediment to romance is sheer longevity – way too much “ever after.” Consequently, we expect the yuks to heat up, especially when Steve Carell appears as the guru therapist. They don’t. Instead, in their sessions, Carell plays it straight, while Streep and Jones go deeper in search of something far more interesting: the poignancy and vulnerability of two people awkwardly trying to verbally address a lifetime of silence, to pull out from the rug everything they swept under it.
When the subject inevitably turns to sex, and the questions get graphic, these scenes exude a pained, almost documentary realism. Watch Streep’s face, which registers her ongoing internal battle between resignation and resolution, one moment retreating back into the cold comfort of marital habit and the next reaching out to a bolder if not brighter future: “I think I might be less lonely if I were alone.” As Arnold senses that his wife could actually leave, Jones pushes the role toward the terra incognita of honest introspection, but the journey is beyond the guy – his voice keeps trailing off, his sentences as dangling as his fate.
Yes, this is the fascinating stuff, a rare (in pop culture) look at the complex nature of the love-sex equation – when it’s too direct, when it’s too vague, when it breaks down completely. Meanwhile, in the “sexual homework” sequences outside the therapist’s office, the film lurches for laughs again, but director David Frankel (who teamed with Streep in The Devil Wears Prada) can’t get the balance right. In a local movie theatre, when the lights go down in the house and so does Kay on her hubby, the leap into farce stumbles badly. How badly? Well, after she concludes, “I’m sorry. I just can’t do that,” it’s hard to know who’s issuing the apology – Kay the character or Streep the actress.
Much more intriguing is the mystery that surrounds Arnold, the skeleton in his closet that prevents him from accepting his wife’s physical advances. Everything about the man is small – his vices no less than his virtues – yet that skeleton seems huge, and surely must be exhumed in the last act back in Omaha. Well, I can’t spoil the ending that spoils the movie. Or movies – there’s a mixed-up bunch here. Yet one of them definitely deserves heartfelt admiration. Take care, though, to hold your full applause – or risk the embarrassment of premature congratulation.