On one hand, I can appreciate the certain amount of daring involved in getting Hope Springs made. This is, after all, a film about an aging married couple that’s not afraid to shy away from sexual frankness. But even with a solid cast who can handle the material, we’re left with a movie that instead trades in either mawkishness or the feeling that it doesn’t quite understand its characters. There’s never a consistent tone, so even when the humanity of Hope Springs manages to shine through, the movie nevertheless feels false.
The film starts off rocky enough, as we’re introduced to Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), a married couple of 31 years. Kay, after all these years, has finally become fed up with their stale situation. Arnold is an all-around grump; the two have slept in separate rooms for the bulk of their marriage and haven’t had sex in half a decade. Nonetheless, Kay still fixes him breakfast every morning. For whatever reason, Kay has decided that enough’s enough, and signs them up for marriage counseling in a small Maine fishing town, with an expensive doctor (played by an unfortunately droll and smug Steve Carrell).
As inherently sad as Kay and Arnold’s whole situation is (Kay wreaks of co-dependency if nothing else), director David Frankel (The Big Year) plays it all up for cutesy laughs. The movie constantly goes for cheap jokes. Since so much of Hope Springs is built around our protagonists’ broken sex life, we end up with awkward gags built around oral sex in movie theaters. The film works best when Streep and Jones are allowed room to breathe as performers. As the film progresses and we learn more about Kay and Arnold’s past, we understand how they’ve gotten where they are. There’s an actual sense of humanity on display, something that’s more because of our two leads, and less because of anything Frankel or the screenplay concocts.
With these short, personable moments, the movie always noses its way back in. There’s an inconsistency in tone, switches back and forth between comedy and full-on depressing drama. And as much as Streep and Jones carry the film, there’s something inherently simplistic in the idea that a little sex can fix a broken marriage. I think it’s safe to say, after Marley & Me, The Big Year and the really awkward way Frankel shoves an Annie Lennox song into the film, he just isn’t a very good filmmaker. What he’s put on display here is nothing more than a semi-glossy Lifetime movie with a good cast — a movie that for everything it does right, it does two things wrong. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving sexuality.