During an early scene in Hope Springs, Meryl Streep is asked to describe her vaginal orgasms during a couples bonding “sexercise” with her husband, Tommy Lee Jones. No, this isn’t a horror movie, but the latest in a series of emerging “Viagra comedies,” whereby elder wives try to coax boners out of their elder husbands. To be fair, Hope Springs doesn’t really deserve that kind of glib assessment — it’s actually quite good, with solid lead performances and a solid script to match. And this is even despite the use of Annie Lennox’s “Why?” during the film’s penultimate scene.
After 31 years of marriage, Omaha, Nebraska natives Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) have hit the wall. They haven’t had sex for a few years, and live like roommates in their suburban home. Kay is the typical demure, older housewife, slowly whittled down over the years by her husband’s passive-aggressive bullying. Arnold has become, as many men do, a Buddha-bellied housecat — emotionally distant, terrified of intimacy and a boring golf enthusiast.
One evening, after Arnold rejects Kay’s advances yet again (she just wants some old-fashioned TLC, ya bastard), the couple fly to Massachusetts to seek the aid of Dr. Feld (Steve Carell, who plays the entire film straight — he really nails the whole marriage counsellor thing), who they hope will mend their relationship. He begins to put the reluctant couple through a series of “sexercises” — beginning with simply holding each other, and working up to public blowjobs. As the therapy sessions become, um, more heated (I imagine, at their age, requiring lots of lube), the stresses in the couple’s relationship start to show, and they quickly realize that this is their last shot at saving the marriage.
Hope Springs utterly fails as a comedy, yet somehow emerges as something greater — a sort of social-realist tale dealing honestly with the dreams and disappointments of marriage. There are a few laughs — mostly failed attempts at the elder mating dance, like Streep sheepishly buying sex manuals — though they’re few and far between. Most of the movie is like a soft-focus chamber drama, with Streep and Jones spilling their guts and dealing with the consequences. Streep and Jones do an excellent job as the average American couple, letting the years of kids and work all hang out. Streep (who looks a lot like Big Bird in this movie) finds the right tone of vulnerability, while Jones commits himself to a portrait of steely male reserve.
The only real weakness with the film is director David Frankel (director of The Devil Wears Prada — you’ll remember how fucking awesome that was). His only contribution (this isn’t the most visually exciting film, and doesn’t need to be) is injecting the usual middle-aged rom-com bullshit — the characteristic supporting characters (Elisabeth Shue slumming it up as a salty bartender) and a soundtrack that came off of some suburban housewife’s iPod. It’s as if he’s too scared to let the film stand on its own, nervously inserting a distinguished dick joke whenever it threatens to become too serious. It’s unfortunate, as the film is much more thoughtful than its poster, trailer and director would suggest.
Hope Springs is obviously aimed at the over 50 set, and those looking for a goofy elder comedy will be either surprised or disappointed at the truths the film deals with. Young married couples look on and despair — this may be you one day.