Amid an abundance of androids, secret agents, masked vigilantes, two thousand sequels and no less than four archers, “Hope Springs” is poised to be a sleeper-hit. It’s everything the rest of this summer’s box office wasn’t: simple.
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Penned by Vanessa Taylor (“Game of Thrones”) and helmed by director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”), “Hope Springs” focuses acutely on Kay (Meryl Streep, “Mamma Mia!”) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones, “No Country for Old Men”) and their rotting, 31-year-old marriage. They have their routine: bacon and eggs, meat and potatoes, the Golf Channel, kisses offered out of obligation more so than passion. But they’re out of sync with each other’s needs and wants, and after years of sleeping in different bedrooms, Kay has had enough. She cashes in a CD and drags a huffy Arnold to a one-week intensive program with renowned sex therapist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell, “Date Night”).
Kay and Arnold’s troubled marriage doesn’t follow the the usual falling-out-of-love formula seen on screen. They don’t get in shouting matches, give ultimatums or have any obvious cause for their troubles. It’s a slow burn, a marriage that declines so stably and without a sound that it feels almost like gravity.
The entire film — the therapy sessions in particular — are so perfectly scripted and blocked that it feels more like you’re glimpsing in on the real lives of two people than seeing a story unfold behind a camera lens. There are long pauses and lines that trail off at the end. And whether Kay and Arnold are expressing deep desires they’ve never shared with anyone or just staring at their hands, Streep and Jones layer everything with potent emotional intensity.
Their performances are natural and fluid, making the wonderful script and direction nearly transparent. Jones conveys Arnold’s dissociation with simple sighs, twitches, shrugs. Streep plays one of her most vulnerable characters to date, with a performance so quiet and stripped down that it might not receive the attention it deserves come awards season.
“Hope Springs” ’s major misstep is its marketing campaign, which sells the film as a feel-good sex comedy by and for adults. As it turns out, “Hope Springs” doesn’t romanticize middle-aged intimacy in the way “It’s Complicated” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” do. Rather, it offers something more real, more visceral. And it’s refreshing, if not always “feel-good.”
In fact, much of “Hope Springs” feels not-at-all good. There are bits of comedic relief, but they aren’t as careful or precise as the rest of the film. The opening scene overflows with the heavy — though not readily obvious — sadness that dribbles throughout every subsequent moment. Arnold bullies Kay, Kay has self-esteem problems and they both have deep wounds that don’t surface until the sessions with Dr. Feld, which are simultaneously powerful and uncomfortable in their frankness. Casting Carell — who usually comes with a hearty helping of slapstick — as the persistent, always matter-of-fact therapist was a surprisingly successful choice.
Taylor’s bold script tackles sexuality, marriage and age in a way that simply isn’t seen in movies anymore. The sex — whether the characters are just talking about it or doing it — is full of insecurities that are revealing, awkward and reassuring all at once. Kay and Arnold’s moments of unembellished intimacy are strikingly raw. That is, until the too-literal soundtrack kicks in, forcing a rom-comish feel on a film that’s more Bergmanesque than Apatowian with its candid exploration of human sexuality.
Like it or not, people above the age of 30 are still sexual beings, and this is finally the movie that is willing to “go there.” And because of that, “Hope Springs” isn’t just simple. It’s revolutionary.