Getting into a relationship is easy; sustaining it over the course of years, or even decades, is the difficult part. Consider that most romantic comedies are about bringing two people together. They meet; they fall in love; there’s a conflict; they resolve it; and they live happily ever after. They’re simple. A screenwriter sets up obstacles and knocks them over. If you’re lucky, there’s a brief swatch or two of relatable material in an entire film.
However, it doesn’t take a lot of intellectual acrobatics to know that the “happily ever after” is bullsh*t. Hell, those “happily ever after” relationships are the most likely to fail (see, e.g., what happened to Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court): There’s too much expectation borne out of the intensity of those courtships. You can’t live up to that.
Indeed, the first few years of a relationship? Those are a breeze. You’re madly in love, everyone wants to have sex all the time, you prioritize romantic affection over responsibility, and there’s always something ahead to look forward to: A wedding; a new house; a new job; and children. It’s when the crystallization wears off and things settle in that a relationship begins to get difficult: You find a groove, and then you maintain it until there’s a rut. For the first time in your relationship, the person you are with may decline to have sex; that rejection mounts; pride takes over; suddenly, you’re afraid to make a move on the person you know better than any other in the world because you don’t want to risk rejection. Then you turn your partner down just to gain hand; and before you know it, it’s been four years, and not only have you not had sex, but you’ve stopped expressing even the subtlest of affections toward one another. Hey! But you’ve finally got “hand” in your broken goddamn marriage.
That’s your happily ever after, right there. It’s also where Hope Springs picks up, 31 years after vows were exchanged. Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) no longer sleep in the same bed. They’ve been going through the same motions for years, seemingly riding it out until their graves rise up and swallow them. But before it happens, Kay suddenly realizes that her marriage is no longer working, and as much as she loves her husband, she can’t go another day feeling more alone with him than without him. She coerces Arnold into couples counseling with Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) in Maine, and they spend most of the rest of the film working through their intimacy issues in a therapist’s office, save for a few moments for the trailer spent outside in the quaint burg.
Hope Springs isn’t really a movie you like or dislike; it’s more of a movie that speaks to you in some way, or it doesn’t. It’s not a romantic comedy as much as it is watching two famous people playing very real characters working through very real problems that I suspect a lot of people who have been married for decades can relate to. It’s not a greatly entertaining or funny movie, either, but there’s an immense amount of honesty in the performances, and David Frankel thankfully spares us from too many romantic contrivances and pratfalls, opting instead for a low-key film rooted in character. These are two people who are not separated by long-distance, by divergent career paths, or existing relationships with other people that they can’t get out of. They’re people who love each other who are separated by their inability to talk to one another.
It’s not an easy problem to dramatize, but that’s what Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are for, and they do a splendid job of depicting an emotionally unavailable husband and a timid wife afraid to speak her mind. Steve Carell, soulful as ever in his dramatic roles, does a brilliant job, too, of facilitating their performances.
Hope Springs is a subdued, but thoughtful film, brave for its refreshingly candid and insightful take on a stalled marriage that’s beyond the help of grand romantic gestures. Romantic gestures may get you to the “happily ever after,” but it takes sustained effort and communication to maintain it. Hope Springs does an admirable job of guiding us through the process.