Kay (Meryl Streep), and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), are a middle-aged couple whose marriage has declined until they are now sleeping in separate rooms and barely interact in any meaningful loving way. Finally, Kay has had enough and finds a book by Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), which inspires her to sign them up for the Doctor's intense week long marriage counseling session. Although Arnold sees nothing wrong with their 30 year long marriage, he reluctantly agrees to go on the expensive excursion. What follows is an insightful experience as Dr. Feld manages to help the couple understand how they have emotionally drifted apart and what they can do to reignite their passion. Even with the Doctor's advice, Kay and Arnold find that renewing their marriage's fire is a daunting challenge for them both.
"You wouldn't think it would be so hard to just touch somebody that you love, but it is. It's really hard."
In a nutshell, that's the crux of 'Hope Springs,' David Frankel's sometimes funny, often uncomfortably relatable (okay, excruciating) chronicle of a long-standing marriage in crisis. Though its previews try to paint the film as a feel-good comedy for the over-40 set, 'Hope Springs' has far more drama than laughs, and its humorous scenes are often tempered with so much angst, fear, and pain, those in the target audience who can truly identify with the story may find themselves cringing with recognition instead of chuckling at the situations depicted and the characters' dilemmas. I know I did.
Infidelity and betrayal may rip a marriage to shreds in the blink of an eye, but perceived or actual indifference can be just as lethal a poison, and far more insidious. Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married 31 years, but the romantic spark that ignited their relationship was snuffed out years ago, and what's left in its wake is a dreary, routine existence. The two sleep in separate bedrooms, rarely discuss anything beyond their daily schedules, and never make love. Kay tries to engage her gruff husband without success, and his seeming obliviousness and uncaring attitude drive her to the brink of despair. Yet after viewing a promotional ad by a noteworthy psychologist (Steve Carell) specializing in marriage counseling, Kay finally takes the bold step of signing up for intensive couples therapy at the doctor's modest offices in the sleepy Maine village of Great Hope Springs. Arnold scoffs at the prospect of baring his soul and airing dirty laundry to a total stranger, but grudgingly makes the trip. And so begins an arduous journey of discovery, revelation, and reconnection that both energizes Kay and Arnold's relationship and chips away at its last painful vestiges.
Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor pulls no punches in her depiction of a marriage on the brink, and the sad state of Kay and Arnold's union mirrors that of countless couples who may find themselves in the same boat, adrift in a sea of uncertainty and lacking a life vest to keep themselves afloat. While there's something funny about Arnold falling asleep to the Golf Channel, Kay surreptitiously buying a book on sex tips, and the two fumbling through a series of prescribed sexual exercises, there's also something inherently sad and distressing about such episodes that tends to stifle any hint of laughter. As a rule, the best comedy is a direct result of personal identification, but some topics just aren't funny if they strike a sensitive nerve, and 'Hope Springs' continually pushes those trigger points until we're squirming in our seats almost as noticeably as Kay and Arnold do in the achingly real and brutally frank therapy sessions.
Intimacy - both physical and emotional - is something we often take for granted with a mate. We fall into it oh so easily, but once it's gone, it's very difficult to reclaim. An act as simple and impulsive as a touch of the hand or casual caress can morph into a labored, monumental decision fraught with worry. Passionate lovers can become disconnected roommates seemingly overnight, yet the seeds of destruction have been carefully (albeit invisibly) cultivated for years. If I had watched 'Hope Springs' two decades ago, I might have questioned its believability quotient. Today, I champion its perception and laser sharp insight, even as my feelings toward the film are lukewarm.
Do I have my own psychological bias against 'Hope Springs' because I can identify all too acutely with both Kay and Arnold? I'd like to think not. After all, I related strongly to the main character in the 1956 drama 'Tea and Sympathy' - a bullied youth whose sensitivity is mocked and masculinity questioned - and I loved that film, despite feeling like an active participant as I watched it. While I appreciate the message 'Hope Springs' transmits and see kernels of brilliance tucked into bits of dialogue and conveyed through awkward glances and defensive body language, I often found some of the situations trite and motivations forced. At times, the film feels like a drama trapped in a romantic comedy framework, unable or unwilling to break free of the cutesy constraints that bind it. The scenes that don't work at all - most notably a botched attempt at oral sex in a movie theater (at the suggestion of the therapist!) - feel as if they were specifically constructed in the rom-com mode, and such frivolous moments detract from and lessen the impact of the more meaty confrontations.
In the hands of actors less talented than Streep and Jones, 'Hope Springs' might not have worked, but these two pros inject such heartbreaking realism into their roles it's impossible not to become invested in their characters' predicament. Streep is, again, sublime, constructing a fully dimensional portrait of a lonely woman filled with longing for bygone days, yet equally culpable for the distressing situation in which she and her husband find themselves. Streep's work is all about nuances and subtleties, and though her role isn't as showy as such recent turns as Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher, and Miranda Priestley, she's just as mesmerizing here inhabiting the shoes of a normal, middle-class, suburban wife. While Streep won't be Oscar-nominated for her work in 'Hope Springs,' she still gives one of the most believable and heartfelt performances of the year, and watching her construct it is endlessly fulfilling.
Jones shines, too, conveying a vulnerability and sensitivity, buried beneath his patented rumpled grumpiness, we rarely see from him. He's especially good during the therapy scenes, projecting a wide range of delicate emotions, and his deadpan sense of comedy helps him engender the lion's share of the movie's laughs. Whoever acts with Meryl Streep almost always finds himself in her shadow, but Jones is about as equal a partner in this endeavor as any co-star in the actress's career, and their symbiotic relationship on screen allows us to buy into their marriage, and thus, the film.
As the soft-spoken yet devastatingly blunt therapist, Carell keeps his manic tendencies in check, filing a restrained and measured performance that never makes us question his credentials. Holding his own in the presence of two heavyweights must have been a daunting task for Carell, but he carries the burden well, as he becomes an essential cog in the film's mechanism, challenging Kay and Arnold to confront their difficult issues and reclaim their marriage.
Whether 'Hope Springs' truly speaks to you or whether you find it a bland and somewhat forced serio-comedy somewhat depends on your station in life and state of your current relationship. Frankel's well-made film can be a pleasant diversion or inspire one to bristle from the sting of personal recognition; it can prompt good-natured amusement or provoke a sense of melancholy. Those who have young, healthy marriages can take note of potential pitfalls, while those with more established partnerships can see how they might find their way out of the woods and back into the arms of their mate. Like cars, marriages often need tune-ups, and 'Hope Springs' gives us hope that it's never too late to get under the hood of our own lives and recharge our dormant batteries. And depending on how willing you are to take that journey with these characters just may determine how much you end up enjoying this likable, but often tough to take, film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Hope Springs' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case with a flyer explaining how to download the Ultraviolet Digital Copy. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. When the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'Robot and Frank,' 'The Words,' 'Playing for Keeps,' and 'The Intouchables' immediately pop up, followed by the full-motion menu with music.
Typical of new releases, 'Hope Springs' sports a neat and tidy 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that, much like the marriage of Kay and Arnold, looks pleasing on the surface yet lacks any pizzazz to make it special. There's nothing much to gripe about here, but nothing much to rave about either. Clarity is quite good, with subtle details easily distinguishable in both the foreground and background, and close-ups expose Streep's careworn wrinkles and Jones' leathery complexion well. Contrast is fine, but I would have preferred a slight level enhancement to give the picture more pop. A fine layer of grain supplies good texture to the image, and no specks, marks, or scratches dot the pristine source material.
Colors are true, but lack vibrancy. The blues of the ocean water and landscape greens look lovely in high-def, but subtler shades appear a little anemic. Black levels are strong, whites are stable and resist blooming, and fleshtones remain natural and stable throughout. No digital issues afflict the transfer, aside from a couple of brief instances of motion blur, and any doctoring escapes notice. All in all, this is a good-looking effort from Sony that serves the film and its subject matter well.
Much like the video transfer, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track gets the job done in an unobtrusive way. The sound is always clear and some subtle atmospherics bleed smoothly into the rears, but, not surprisingly for a movie of this type, surround opportunities are limited. Most of the audio is front-based, with some noticeable stereo separation widening the audio field a bit. Accents, such as the sizzle of an egg in a frying pan, are crisp and distinct, and the instrumental scoring possesses a satisfying richness of tone. The pop tunes sprinkled throughout the track also exhibit fine fidelity and fill the room well.
Dialogue drives 'Hope Springs,' and all conversations are well prioritized and easy to comprehend. Dynamic range is rarely tested, but highs and lows fit well within the parameters, and no incidents of distortion disrupt the audio. While sound isn't the star of this film by any means, this utilitarian track serves the story well and never gets in the way of the actors.
A solid supplemental package adds some fun and insight to this surprisingly serious film.
'Hope Springs' fills a vital niche by frankly exploring a mature relationship and the challenges older couples face if they wish to sustain a healthy, fulfilling union, but director David Frankel's comedy may hit too close to home for some, who may find it more like a therapy session than a romantic romp. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are excellent as the aging wife and husband, and their work elevates the material to a much more meaningful level. Video and audio transfers are solid, befitting a recent theatrical release, and a few Blu-ray exclusives nicely beef up the supplemental package. While 'Hope Springs' may not merit repeat viewings, it's definitely worth a look, if only to see Streep and Jones lock horns and, eventually, lips.