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January 24, 2019

Hope Springs

by Franz Patrick


Hope Springs (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Have you ever visited someone’s house, looked around their kitchen, and noticed a dishpan that seemed to have gone unwashed for weeks? The marriage between Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) is similar to that dishpan, only their relationship has gone unattended for years, so reduced to a mere convenience that they succumbed to living like college roommates who neither like nor dislike each other but somehow they must tolerate what is handed to them. Kay has grown so unhappy that she decides she wants a change, to restore intimacy in their marriage. She books a week-long vacation to Maine so that she and her husband can meet with renowned couples therapist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). Despite his wife’s desperate pleas, Arnold remains resistant to the idea.

Although “Hope Springs,” written by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Frankel, features sagging bodies and wrinkled faces on screen, it is a story that can speak to couples of every age, the requirement only having a certain level of maturity, wisdom, and autonomy to look underneath the material’s sclera. And while its messages aren’t particularly groundbreaking, one of which is that being in a rewarding relationship, even one that has endured for decades, requires constant maintenance, but the picture has enough small droplets of honesty to make this story specific to the central couple being examined.

The comedy is embedded in the drama and almost never the other way around. Instead of going for the cheap and easy laughs, like when the counselor assigns the couple to rekindle their sex life, it chooses to highlight the pain and the shame that comes with their situation. We can almost feel the characters’ regrets and asking themselves how they can possibly have allowed their marriage to come to a point where touching each other has become a chore. Kay is a true desperate housewife sans ironing flourishes while Arnold is an automaton that performs its job but doesn’t seem to have any special wants or needs.

Its principal actors allow the script to shine. A lot of performers can sit on a couch and play the part of a miserable half, but not many can make it believable. For example, small moments like Streep choosing Kay to button and unbutton her dress unconsciously while Dr. Feld eases the session from unsaid feelings to the subject of sex makes a scene all the more special. Yes, what she does with her hands communicates that she’s somewhat uncomfortable at the idea. But her eyes suggest otherwise. She wants someone to bring up the sex problem because she herself is unable to without being ignored, laughed at, dismissed as being silly by her husband.

The movie isn’t about blame but about acknowledgement and growth. It reminds us that there is unhappiness in Arnold and Kay’s marriage because they have allowed it to seep through by growing complacent. Who can blame them? It’s easy to just sit back when everything seems to be going well.

I wished the filmmakers had eliminated the soundtrack altogether. When a turning point in the relationship has occurred, it plays like a tired romantic comedy, signaling when it’s time to be sad or happy. Instead of paying attention to the images, the music is so present that it acts as a wall between the characters and the audience. Although it happens only twice, it cheapens what is supposed to be a smart and mature material.

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