Hope springs eternal, unless you are hoping that Hope Springs is a great movie. In that case you are out of luck. The film is full of clichés, unfinished storytelling and squanders the talents of Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell.
Hope Springs finds Streep and Jones stuck in a stale marriage. Their life is all about routine and they have little to no intimacy. They sleep in separate bedrooms and give each other the cable package for their 31st wedding anniversary. Arnold (Jones) seems fairly content with this situation and has no interest in changing. He also appears to be completely oblivious of how unhappy his wife is or how his apparent disinterest in her physically makes her feel. Deciding that she wants more of a real marriage, Kay (Streep) takes the initiative to enroll them in a weeklong retreat of intensive relationship counseling with expert Dr. Feld (Carell). Arthur is resistant, but goes to placate Kay, and the two of them struggle to try and restore their marriage. It isn’t easy.
In a lot of ways, I am not the ideal audience for Hope Springs. I have never been married, let alone married for a long time, so I obviously can’t identify with the couple’s situation. The demographic of the audience at the screening definitely skewed a lot older than I normally see and the majority of the people were couples in their late 50s and beyond (although there STILL managed to be a baby in the audience. Seriously, people – stop bringing infants to the movies, especially ones that aren’t quiet!). As someone who has some commitment issues and a generally ambiguous view of marriage, this movie was kind of my worst nightmare up on the screen – devoting your life to another person who seemingly loses interest in you and winding up trapped in a loveless marriage. So this film probably had a bit of an uphill climb with me from the get-go. It may resonate more with a different group of people (Critics apparently liked it a lot more than I did, for example – the film is currently at 76% approval on Rotten Tomatoes).
From the commercials for Hope Springs, I was expecting the film to be a comedy more in the vein of Something’s Gotta Give. While there are some laughs scattered throughout, the movie isn’t quite sure if it wants to be a comedy or a drama. A hybrid approach could work, but the film never really commits to that idea either. Kay and Arthur are not fully developed characters; even though the audience goes through their counseling sessions, I don’t feel like I knew them very well as people or understood what their issues were. I especially felt like I didn’t understand Arthur. Kay is the more emotionally in touch of the two of them, so she has a little more depth. But I found it hard to believe that Arthur was as clueless to his wife and her feelings. I get the whole “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” school of thought, but even that wouldn’t fully explain Arthur’s behavior. I kept waiting for the breakthrough – some explanation for his actions and withdrawal from the marriage – but they never came, despite some hints to the contrary. Maybe that’s realistic, but it made for frustrating viewing when so much of his character was just broad strokes. The music in the film was also distracting and its usage was too heavy handed.
The acting, of course, was top notch. I don’t think Streep is capable of turning in a bad performance. Even when I don’t necessarily enjoy her choices – I wasn’t a fan of her Margaret Thatcher – I always respect what she is doing and assume she probably knows better than I do. I’m less of a fan of Tommy Lee Jones, but this role was a nice departure for him. He usually plays a hard-nosed authority figure in his movies, so to see him have to deal with more sensitivity and sweetness was a nice change. Carell was fine as their therapist, though the role doesn’t require him to bring much to the table. He was suitably restrained, which was a bit of a change for him as well. After so many years of playing Michael Scott on The Office, it was a nice reminder that he can play more serious and subtle roles as well. The actors do as best they can with the material, but ultimately the story, plotting and character development fail them.
I didn’t hate Hope Springs, but I didn’t really like it either. My affection for the actors involved probably made me more forgiving of some of the flaws of the film, but the flaws were still more than apparent. It felt like the movie was much longer than it was, which is never a good sign. However, I do appreciate that the film featured actors and a story that reflect a different time in people’s lives than is usually portrayed in the movies. You don’t see a lot of film that focus on romance later in life or where the youngest star of the movie is turning 50. They also don’t try to gloss over age in the film; both Streep and Jones look very real, wrinkles and all. I think there is definitely a story to be told here, but Hope Springs just didn’t do a very good job of it. The actors and the story deserved better.
Hope Springs opens nationwide today.