There are times—many times, in fact—when Hope Springs bears an uncanny resemblance to a movie made about adults, for adults. Not fake adults like the middle-aged ninnies in Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, which have become the sad standard for over-40 Hollywood relationship dramas, but ones who are working through real, identifiable problems in an honest and sometimes wrenching way. The pitch alone would get most studio executives on the phone with security: A middle-aged couple from Omaha, mired in a stale marriage after 31 years, flies out to an in-depth therapy program in Maine to solve their intimacy problems. And they speak frankly about their problems in bed. And they make awkward attempts at rekindling the flame. And those attempts are filmed. With a movie camera.
The original script, by Vanessa Taylor, is perceptive about the subtle ways a seemingly stable marriage can rot without thrown dishes or shouting matches. Here, it’s as simple as two people having very different expectations about what marriage is supposed to be about. Tommy Lee Jones plays a grumpy businessman who’s happy enough with eating eggs and bacon for breakfast, reclining to the Golf Channel at night, and retiring to sleep in the guest bedroom. His wife, played by Meryl Streep, feels lonely and unloved, and she finds herself willing to do something radical to bring some life back into her marriage. So she takes $4,000 out of savings and books a trip to small-town Maine for a couples’ retreat with a therapist (Steve Carell) who offers an intensive weeklong program.
The sessions with Carell are the strongest scenes in Hope Springs, unfolding over pages and pages of script that drop all pretense to romantic comedy and deal with the hard, humbling work of fixing a relationship more fraught than either party seems to realize. They have breakthroughs and terrible stumbles, and some moments of hope that turn sour in a second. There’s an emotional violence to the first half that’s striking and raw: Jones bullies Streep relentlessly, and seems almost entirely responsible for the problems between them. But Carell, in a gentle and assured performance, draws out resentments and fantasies that they’ve kept from each other and finds wounds that were not immediately visible. Taylor and Frankel go too broad when they try for comic relief, and the on-the-nose soundtrack is borderline-criminal. But Hope Springs handles marriage and advanced-age sexuality with a refreshing, down-to-earth candor. In today’s Hollywood, that counts as radical.