Film Reviews

Doing what it takes to save a marriage

Hope Springs is a comedy-drama with a stinger in its tail.

If you’re one of those who’s tired of reading about how wonderful Meryl Streep is, just stop reading now, Bunky, because you’re going to read it again. In this discussion of the marriage tale Hope Springs, which cannily hybridizes rom-com and darkish drama, Streep shines.

After 3l years of marriage Streep is exhausted by a marriage without any kind of intimacy to a grouchy, sleep-prone accountant husband (Tommy Lee Jones, at the top of his game for the first time in a long time). She takes her own money and buys them a week of marital counseling in a kitschy Maine seaside resort. Jones tags along reluctantly and stays that way until his hidden anger surfaces, prompted by the prying of counselor Steve Carell, mercifully underplaying.

Sounds like the hook for a predictable rom-com, does it not? But its predictability is short-lived, as the questions probe deeper than you might guess and become far too candid for the characters’ comfort zone, and sometimes the movie audience’s, too.

Hilarity and sadness are inextricably bound up together. This probably wouldn’t work at all unless we could fully believe in the characters, but Streep and Jones give it their all and convince us. Streep, particularly, is uncanny: she seems to simply be that character, somehow wearing a Meryl Streep mask.

Thank God this story does not offer any easy answers–or answers at all, at least of the time-honored movie-movie kind. The problems are too well-defined, the characters too set in their ways, their attempts at compromise and reconciliation too painful (and hilarious) to even have solutions. Streep and Jones have dragged us into real-life land and made us feel and, even more miraculously, made us laugh, chuckle, guffaw.

When Carell assigns the couple exercises in order to increase intimacy, sexual and otherwise, the two have a go at them, awkwardly and ineptly. Never has the line between tragedy and comedy been so razor-thin. (When Streep gamely fellates Jones in a movie theatre all their acrobatics come to naught.) Other exercises seem to drive the couple further apart. It’s here that the movie audience might begin to feel that while they started with a comedy, they’re up to their necks in drama–real drama.

Streep and Jones keep this thing afloat through sheer superior acting, even when we might want to opt out, too. Maybe there’s no “answer” here: they have a dilemma, not a problem. Maybe they should call the marriage off; maybe they’ve hit a wall of no more choices, children married and gone, all possibilities exhausted. Maybe life at best is the redundancies of the same marital routines, sex stopped five years before, two people living in an ever-diminishing box that seems more and more to be shaped like a coffin.

Directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), the movie is slathered wall-to-wall with pop music from different recent eras, and that is a good thing, better than the usual syrupy violins–it’s an album of the music the marriage went through, and the eras most of us have gone through as well, another example of a smart movie sneaking up on us.

There is also a credible ending. We can believe in what happens, and how often can that be said in our current movie reality? You might not always like what is said in Hope Springs, but you’ll probably end up admiring it. Try it on for size.