Jeff Bridges was offered the leading male part but turned it down.
Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married over thirty years. In what should be their second youth—kids out of the house and retirement on the horizon—their marriage is slowly unraveling. They intimacy they once shared has fizzled. Stuck in stale routines, they barely talk and even sleep in separate bedrooms. Desperately seeking a spicy reconnection, Kay books a weeklong vacation to Maine for a visit to the famous doctor of love; marriage counselor, Dr. Feld (Steve Carell).
Arnold is deeply resistant to the idea and hides festering wounds under a mask of stagnant reserve that the quiet Kay; who goes along to get along, just can’t seem to remove. The soft-spoken but fearless Dr. Feld takes on the challenge by assigning what should be intimacy building tasks. However, what at first appears to the very simple—holding each other for 20 minutes—is nearly too much for the couple; so wide is the chasm in their marriage.
Streep’s Kay openly desires her husband, but at the same time has forgotten about her own desire. When asked about orgasms, she has trouble defining details while Arnold simply refuses to give any. I knew this film would deal with an older married couple experiencing hardships in their changing relationship, but I never expected such frank discussion about sex. The image of seniors and sex is almost exclusively used as the butt of a joke or to disgust—this is not the case in Hope Springs. The issue is treated with reality, as something people experience, and with great humor as Kay and Arnold try fumbling towards ecstasy in very human ways. Kay trying to spice things up in the movie theater will split your sides!
Jones’ Arnold at first appears to the one note strong and silent type. He doesn’t want to quibble over past mistakes or dally over hurt feelings, but it’s clear these swallowed sorrows bother him. His complete disconnection from Kay seems almost inevitable to us. As Dr. Feld begins to crack that strong and silent mask, we receive a wonderfully nuanced and layered performance from Jones whose character hasn’t realized that his wife might actually leave him.
Carell’s Dr. Feld is the excavator of the couple’s past, dusting off the bones old resentments and insecurities calcified by the years. In the most understated performance of his film career, Carell is quiet, non-judgmental, but firm as Dr. Feld. Carell makes it easy to believe that he gained the trust of many couples before Kay and Arnold. The several scenes between the trio never feel claustrophobic, but hum with the intensity of talent.
Kay and Arnold make some progress, but old habits are hard to break. While the couple faces setbacks; their sessions with Dr. Feld eventually allow Kay and Arnold to find the desire to begin again.
The drama of Hope Springs has high stakes believability, as do the copious amounts humor. While I wasn’t surprised by how much I enjoyed the performances, I was delighted by how wonderfully comical and authentic the film feels.
Seeing older stars in lead roles like these may usher in a new trend in movie making, pop culture, and marketing. Considering that seniors are becoming the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, we should start to see considerable growth in all media with a focus on those 50 and older. This will be an interesting change from the youth centering we see today and if that means more films as honest, heartfelt, and hilarious as Hope Springs, then I’m all for it!