Viewed August 11, 2012
This past Saturday was my birthday, and in my family—as in many families, I would suspect—we go to the movies to celebrate before dining out. We’re just not that creative. Unfortunately, there were slim pickings to choose from this year. I had no desire to get confused during The Bourne Legacy (Tony Gilroy, 2012) or to catch up by seeing last month’s The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012). So I opted for Hope Springs (David Frankel, 2012), the sweet little comedy about a couple in their sixties rekindling the romance and spicing up their sex lives after thirty-one years of marriage. When I told my film critic friend Gabe of my plans to see this movie, he joked, “I had no idea you were a sixty-something sex-starved housewife with zero interests.” My response? “Now you do!”
It’s not that I regret my choice, but Hope Springs did very little to impress me. I wasn’t expecting much, as I had somewhat foolishly read reviews beforehand, positive and negative alike. In particular, I knew not to expect a zany battle-of-the-sexes-type romantic comedy that the trailers and TV spots implied. In fact, while Hope Springs is not without its funny moments, it should be more accurately classified as a drama, for it treats Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold’s (Tommy Lee Jones) lack of physical and emotional intimacy in their marriage as a deathly serious problem. And that’s fine by me. When a couple that has been together for over thirty years and raised two children (who are now out of the house), sleep in separate rooms and barely talk to each other, getting them to reconnect is serious business. Washington Post chief film critic Ann Hornaday claims, “Hope Springs is a minor miracle of a movie,” as it tackles its subject “with a degree of integrity and candor rarely seen in American movies.” I agree, but to an extent. Here’s why. Fair warning: spoilers follow!
Omaha, Nebraska. We meet Kay and Arnold right around their thirty-first wedding anniversary. And that’s the first of many implausibilities. Given their socially conservative backgrounds, having met and married when Kay was in college or just graduated, they should be married for longer and with older kids, too. Anyway, stuck in a deep rut wherein they sleep in separate rooms (owing to Arnold’s years-old back injury) and gift each other a new cable subscription, Kay intends to break free, taking Arnold with her. A retail clerk at a Coldwater Creek fashion outlet for conservatively inclined middle-aged women shoppers, she takes what little money she’s saved over the years and splashes out on a week of intensive couple’s counseling sessions with Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell as subdued as ever) in Great Hope Springs, Maine. (I imagine that screenwriter Vanessa Taylor grants Kay this job so as to distance her from earlier iterations of this sad-sack character. In other words, Kay isn’t simply a fed-up homemaker, she’s a fed-up former housewife who in recent years as reentered the workforce, albeit only the service industry.) From the beginning, and throughout most of their sojourn, Arnold is hostile to Kay’s expensive, faraway effort to save their marriage, but of course he gradually becomes more game, more willing to open up to Kay, at Dr. Feld’s insistence.
Hope Springs is highly uncinematic and not at all like the promotional image seen directly above. It mainly cuts between long scenes set in Dr. Feld’s office, where he prods each with questions about his or her sexual history and fantasies, and short scenes that take place around the small, idyllic town, whether at the staid motel room, kitschy diner, bar, or lighthouse museum. Director David Frankel, who previously worked with Streep on her Oscar-nominated role in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), adds no flourishes. What he’s produced is an awfully boring film whose scenes—let alone frames—hardly look different from each other. It doesn’t help matters that cliched pop songs dominate the soundtrack, everything from Annie Lennox’s “Why” to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” (the latter of which sounds during a failed attempt to have sex). The instrumental score is almost non-existent; I noticed it in only one scene. Bad form.
But what of these therapy sessions? Although I have never seen either program, I suspect that the HBO series The Sopranos (1999-2007) and In Treatment (2008-2011) more innovatively shoot conversations between a therapist and his or her patient, appropriately heightening the tension between them. To the contrary, everything in Hope Springs is straight-forward. I can only recall one interesting editing technique in all of the scenes at Dr. Feld’s: we hear him ask Arnold questions he doesn’t want to answer, and the camera focuses on Arnold’s anguished face in close-up as he listens to Dr. Feld. Then again, I also appreciated those zoomings in on Kay’s face as she listens to Arnold’s confessions. Whereas my dad liked that Steve Carell managed to reel in his trademark goofy mania, I endlessly tried to come up with names that could play the part with more… oomph. This is not to say that Carell turned in a weak or bad performance, as it probably has more to do with the way Taylor wrote Dr. Feld and how Frankel interpreted the character from her script. What if Dr. Feld had been less calm? Hell, what if he had a sense of humor?
Speaking of casting, let’s address Streep’s and Jones’s performances and their characters. A living legend, Streep predictably embodies her character to the fullest (at least as fully as she can, given the limited script), complete with timid mannerisms and speech and an incredibly dowdy hairstyle. But like Hornaday, I couldn’t help wishing that “her sweet, naive character had just one more layer to make her sharper and more complex,” like her character in It’s Complicated (Nancy Meyers, 2009). As the instigator of the project to rebuild their marriage, Kay begins as the more sympathetic of the pair. We root for her to get what she wants; after all, her desires are more than reasonable. But when Dr. Feld coaxes her sexual fantasies out of her, and she comes up short, not only did I feel sorry for Kay (who claims that she has only ever wanted Arnold, in vanilla-flavored sexual positions and scenarios), I wondered, what is the point? Why should I care about this woman if she doesn’t want something, for lack of a better word, interesting? It’s not enough that, after Dr. Feld’s encouraging her to experiment and act on her fantasies, she attempts to give Arnold a blow job in a movie theater. “Attempts,” being the operative word there. She’s too embarrassed, uncomfortable, and ill-experienced to finish, and she crawls away in shame. What’s worse is that she only ever wants to please Arnold. Other than wanting him to kiss and touch her in innocent ways, she never asks for him to pleasure her in any way. Presented entirely for laughs, Kay doesn’t realize that oral sex isn’t just performed on the man; I wanted to pull my eyes out. Ugh. Compounding all of this is the final scene during the end credits: at the pair’s vow renewal ceremony on the Maine beach a year later, with Dr. Feld and family gathered, Kay pledges to keep her hair long because she knows that Arnold likes it that way. So much for wishing that the original trip had given her a backbone and an independent spirit, which was in evidence when she first boarded the plane in Omaha without Arnold (who showed up, hemming and hawing, at the last possible moment).
Admittedly, one of the reasons why I had not wanted to see Hope Springs was because I found Tommy Lee Jones unappealing as Meryl Streep’s romantic lead. I didn’t think his on- and off-screen persona meshed well with the demands of what I thought at the time was a romantic comedy. But now I am happy to say that his casting and performance are spot-on. He’s less the grizzled lawman in No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007) or The Fugitive (Andrew Davis, 1993) and more the grizzled businessman in The Company Men (John Wells, 2010). Whereas the chameleon-like Streep alters her voice and appearance when playing Kay (looking older and mousy), Jones looks the same as he always does, except his principal prop is a suitcase rather than a shotgun. As an avatar of a chiseled and mythically strong American masculinity—aging but active, a maverick for the greater good—it’s interesting to see how easily Jones transfers this to his portrayal of Arnold, who’s emotionally stunted, uncommunicative, non-confrontational, and angry. New York‘s film critic, David Edelstein, proposes that Kay’s withholding sexual favors for years frustrated Arnold to the point where he never returned to the bedroom, even after his back got better. As if to say, you did it to yourself, Kay. Ouch. Having said this, though, Jones easily earns the most laughs since he’s the only one, say, really uncomfortable discussing his sex life with a complete stranger. He comes up with many wisecracks, memorably about Dr. Feld’s monotone approach to sexuality (if you’ve seen the trailer, you know what I mean), and Jones is a gifted physical comedian. Who knew?!
According to the movie’s trivia page on the Internet Movie Database, Jeff Bridges was originally offered Jones’s role. When my sister brought this little factoid to my attention, I contemplated how different the movie would be. It definitely would have been more pleasant to sit through the sex scenes (more on those in a moment), since Bridges is a considerably more attractive man. We can’t know why Bridges turned it down unless he ever publicly addresses the question, but we can take comfort that he co-starred in a much more sophisticated romantic drama (with comedic elements) in 1996: The Mirror Has Two Faces, with director-star Barbra Streisand. While Columbia University professors Gregory Larkin (Bridges) and Rose Morgan (Streisand) may be unmarried when the film begins, The Mirror Has Two Faces similarly tracks their platonic relationship as it morphs first into a platonic marriage and later, once she’s had enough of a shared life without passion and romance, a fully-fledged sexual marriage. Granted, I don’t approve of how Rose’s third-act makeover from ugly duckling to stunning swan fixes the sexual intimacy problem of their marriage (in fact, Gregory and Rose marry late in life because they’ve finally found their intellectual equals), but The Mirror Has Two Faces doesn’t shy away from addressing a middle-aged couple’s sexual desires and fantasies. Rose is a fiercely intelligent, neurotic, cosmopolitan, and desirous woman. So much easier to relate to than the bland Midwestern housewife Kay. (By the way, shouldn’t Nebraskans be offended that the Coasts, both East and West, continue to culturally belittle them?)
Actually, now’s a good time to look at those Hope Springs sex scenes. I bet that the filmmakers and the studio behind it think they pushed the envelope simply by making a movie about a husband and wife in their sixties trying to rediscover each other and themselves sexually. Oh, whatever. They don’t go very far. Yes, they push the PG-13 rating, but only in terms of language. For example, Dr. Feld asks if Kay ever wishes they assumed more than just the missionary position during sex. Would she, he asks, prefer to try out anal sex? Blushes and hand-waving ensue. Out of the question. But when sex between Kay and Arnold is represented on-screen, after a romantic dinner at a high-class restaurant in town (for a change!), we see no sexagenarian flesh. Just a lot of fully-clothed groping. Even when Arnold gets on top of her, their clothes stay on completely. I hate it in movies when characters have sex fully dressed. Unless you’re in public and having sex standing up, there is no excuse. How confrontational and realistic do the filmmakers—and I’m talking about those of Hope Springs specifically now—think they are when these sex scenes leave so much to be desired? Maybe I’m being too harsh. It is, after all, a big studio picture that clearly wants to appeal most to Middle American viewers of a certain age, who should find Kay and Arnold hopelessly familiar.
Still, after years of watching films from around the world about people—young and old alike—desperately trying to make a (sexual) connection with someone else, Hope Springs simply comes up short. Ann Hornaday mentions in her Washington Post review that the film is “like the more cheerful, reassuring and commercially palatable version” of a story similar to Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour (2012), about an elderly man faced with losing his terminally ill wife. I haven’t seen Amour yet, but somehow I just can’t imagine this to be the case. A more appropriate “world cinema”/”art-house”/auteurist comparison is Andreas Dresen’s Cloud 9 (2008), a small, German character study in which a sixty-something-year-old woman, after thirty-odd years of a happy if routine marriage, embarks on a torrid affair with a man in his seventies! With disastrous consequences, of course. As if that were not enough, the director shows the adulterous couple, who, I might add, are nowhere near as glamorous or fit as Streep or Jones, fornicating in graphic detail, their flabby flesh rolling all over each other. It may not be a pretty sight, but it’s certainly more frank, and in its frankness, a beautiful thing. And when you turn to more commercial (read: simply American) output, even It’s Complicated provides a more nuanced view of people approaching 60 who let go of their inhibitions and assert their sexuality in aggressive ways. It’s not for nothing that Alec Baldwin says to his ex-wife Meryl Streep that their affair is like something out of a French film.