It’s quite convenient that David Frankel’s Hope Springs kicked its original title – Great Hope Springs – because such a tiny edit saves the film from a rash of mocking spins on its name. Just Okay Hope Springs. Totally Adequate Hope Springs. Hey, Not So Bad Hope Springs. The film, which centers on the crumbling marriage of Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) and their apparent last ditch effort to save it by way of an intensive relationship workshop with therapist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), is perfectly acceptable stuff, but it’s by no means “great” and it’s not nearly as frank, honest, and mature as it would like to be.
Instead, it’s a gentle enough take on the romantic comedy for the older set that struggles to find its tone and aim, before settling into something that’s strangely pleasing and oddly compelling. Hope Springs is both a rare bird (how often do we see mature studio films that examine faltering marriages and place importance on the value of lovemaking?) and a strange duck (how many films about faltering marriages encourage a first act of chuckles and titters before dropping the emotional boom, and repeatedly?).
Hope Springs is not one of those raw and wrenching tales about a collapsing union – director Frankel and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor are far more interested in exploring the tiny fissures that spread and crack once-steady unions. As far as we can tell, there have been no major issues within Kay and Arnold’s decades-long marriage – there have been no accusations of infidelity, their children all seem lovely and well-adjusted, their house is well-kept, and though financial struggles are hinted at, the pair seem to have just fine for themselves – which allows Hope Springs to get to the root of their problems, and quick.
Hope Springs is a film about intimacy – both emotional and physical – and Taylor’s script wastes no time in cluing us into the breakdown of every shade of intimacy between Kay and Arnold, introducing us to the couple on an evening when Kay tries to initiate sex with her husband, who will have none of it. Arnold swiftly (and completely) shuts Kay down, freezing her out of both his mental and emotional headspace and his actual physical proximity. That’s the real problem, actually, that Kay and Arnold don’t share a bedroom, and haven’t for many years.
Arnold’s rebuffing of her attempts to get amorous (or even just affectionate) drive Kay to finally act – by signing the pair of them up for a week in Maine to be counseled by marriage guru Dr. Feld. From there, the film becomes both a conversation and a dance between the three, with Feld pushing, Arnold pulling, and Kay crying. It remains, however, weirdly entertaining. Such a production rests on performance and, fortunately for Hope Springs, the film is packed with talent and strong turns by its three leads.
Streep, who comes across as dippy and annoying in many of the ads for the film, pulls off the best and most relatable performance of the entire film. There’s no question that Streep is one of our finest actors, but here she has reined in her craft just a touch, allowing Kay to work in body language and facial expressions (many of which are just simply heartbreaking). Carell is similarly restrained, turning in a deceptively finely-tuned performance as Dr. Feld, who comes across as appropriately warm, understanding, and wise. Jones’ performance takes a bit more time, with his gruff Arnold channeling Clint Eastwood before finally reaching something that feels like emotional truth. But it’s a winning combination, and a watchable one, even as Hope Springs starts going for the gut (and, also, for some frank sex talk).
The film does, however, struggle to maintain a consistent tone – playing too fluffy for its first act, going too dark in the middle, and then attempting to mix up those disparities as we wind down in its finale – and Frankel is unable to balance any of it to make a kind of kitchen sink dramedy. He faced a similar challenge with his The Devil Wears Prada, another uneven outing that couldn’t quite fit all of its pieces together, even as it desperately tried to.
And though it may only be a symptom of the problem, Hope Spring’s inability to figure out what it wants to do and how it wants to do it is marred still further by its absolutely wretched soundtrack. While the film itself is generally amiable, slightly forgettable, and basically inoffensive, the work done by the music department (and particularly by music supervisor Julia Michels) is beyond tone deaf, beyond boring, beyond uninspired. The film is saddled with zippy pop songs that play (and distractingly so) over inappropriate moments, overused classics meant to firmly direct and manipulate audience emotion like “Let’s Stay Together,” and a large sequence that looks to have been written and directed simply to provide Annie Lennox’s “Why” with a new music video. Why indeed.
The Upside: A conversation-driven film, Hope Springs boils down to the performance of its leads, and their interactions and chemistry with each other. Fortunately for everyone involved, Streep, Jones, and Carell work exceedingly well together, and that keeps the film feeling fresh and enjoyable.
The Downside: Tonally uneven, a distractingly bad and invasive soundtrack, comes with a lack of focus, is not nearly as honest or bold as it would like to believe it is.
On the Side: Jeff Bridges was originally offered the role of Arnold. That would have been an entirely different film.