I’ve never been married, let alone been to a marriage counselor, so I can’t be certain that “Hope Springs” is authentic. But its depiction of fizzling marriages and couples therapy sure feels like it rings true, and it sure seemed to hit home with the middle-aged women in the audience I saw it with, whose audible reactions had an air of recognition about them. Their husbands probably recognized themselves in the film, too, but they kept quiet about it.
This tender, optimistic dramatic comedy about a timid wife trying to find the lost magic in her 31-year marriage to an inexpressive husband has an intimate scale, with only three major characters: Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as the couple, Omaha residents Kay and Arnold, and Steve Carell as Dr. Feld, the New England author-therapist whose one-week counseling course they sign up for. Actually, it’s Kay who signs up for the retreat. She’s the one who feels unhappy with the mundane, sexless routine that she and Arnold have lapsed into over the last several years, ever since their kids moved out of the house. Arnold, in the classic style of Oblivious Husband, hasn’t been introspective enough to notice that anything is amiss.
But he does love his wife. That’s why he agrees to accompany Kay to Maine without her having to coerce him through some kind of sitcom-y emotional blackmail, which is how a lesser movie would have gotten him there. No, he decides on his own to go with her, even though he thinks therapy is hooey and that she’s wasting her money. He continues to complain after they arrive, then is briefly pacified after Dr. Feld helps them achieve a small breakthrough, then returns to cynicism after a setback. Kay wavers between hopefulness and despair, gradually realizing that if she can’t convince Arnold of the need for change, then all is lost. “I think I might be less lonely if I were alone,” she says.
As the therapist, Carell sets aside his comedic skills to focus on one of his less-heralded talents: empathy. Dr. Feld isn’t a huckster but a genuinely concerned professional, a man who wants to help and is good at his job. Carell conveys this through facial expressions and vocal inflections: a compassionate half-smile here, a discreet glance there. In the therapy scenes, Carell is perfect at making sure neither party thinks he is taking sides or assigning blame. I think what I’m saying here is that if I ever need a marriage counselor, I want it to be Steve Carell.
These therapy scenes — Kay and Arnold have a session every morning, then spend time the rest of the day in the seaside village where Dr. Feld has his practice — are astonishingly realistic (or at least feel like they are). I suspect the questions Dr. Feld asks are close to what a real marriage counselor would ask, and that Kay and Arnold’s responses are likewise authentic. There are no big, dramatic reasons for the downturn in their marriage, no shocking revelations or secrets that led to it. Nothing “caused” them to become more like housemates than spouses; it just happened. Nor is it entirely Arnold’s fault, even though it seems like that at first. He’s not good at sharing his feelings, but Kay isn’t good at speaking up when there’s a problem, either.
Directed with maturity by David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”), you can imagine the film having been adapted from a stage play (it’s actually an original screenplay by “Everwood” and “Jack & Bobby” writer Vanessa Taylor) — but I wouldn’t envy anyone trying to mount a production of it with actors of lower caliber than Streep and Jones. As well-written as it is, with frank analysis of what can make a good marriage lose its spark over time, the film gets its emotional resonance from the heartfelt performances. Streep, who usually plays confident, vibrant characters, is vulnerable and wounded here, at times heartbreakingly so; Jones, who usually plays gruff, no-nonsense characters, shows what it’s like when those men have real feelings beneath their rough exteriors. Both do exactly what great actors are supposed to do: they make us feel what the characters are feeling, make us understand where they’re coming from, get us invested in their happiness. The payoff is rewarding.
Despite its marketing as a sunny comedy, this is really a dramatic — but not heavy — examination of middle-age love. I suspect that any couple in a decades-long relationship, even one that is running smoothly, will find much to relate to in these sympathetic and very human characters.
B+ (1 hr., 40 min.; )