The movie “Hope Springs” brings two words to mind: painfully funny. This gem of a film stars Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as Kay and Arnold, a Midwestern couple with two grown children. Married more than 30 years, their relationship has been ossified by age, domestic routine and a sea of unspoken hurts that crest like a tsunami between them. Seeking to revive their intimacy, Kay schedules a week of intensive couples therapy in Maine with a counselor named Dr. Feld, played by Steve Carell.
Although it’s high-stakes drama –- you really don’t know until the end if this marriage can be saved -- it’s a nuanced portrait of a relationship in which nothing, and yet everything, happens.
“It’s a little journey,” said Streep in a roundtable with a dozen reporters in New York. “That’s the story: A door opens. It’s not hyperbolic at all; it’s just a little movement within a relationship. But it’s seismic and it speaks to people; it’s [about] your deepest yearning.”
Ironically, screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, co-executive producer on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” is unmarried and decades younger than the characters in the film. So why this story for her first feature?
“I kept having these unsuccessful relationships [that weren’t] just unsuccessful, they were unsuccessful in exactly the same way. I kept ending up at this place of distance,” she told me in sit-down interview. Taylor began reading therapy books, and found the composite couples described tended to be older and long-married. “And it just suddenly started to dawn on me: I’m having this problem and I’m younger and feel pretty in the swim of things. How much harder would that be? How awkward would that be?”
And awkward it is: Carell, who plays the straight man in this set piece, asks the couple pointed questions about their sex lives that leaves the audience alternately cringing and laughing out loud. I asked Carell if he was squeamish about certain lines.
“You mean, ‘What about masturbation?’” he said, eliciting a roar of laughter from reporters. “No, I wasn’t. When I read the part I thought, ‘Am I really going to say these things to Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones?’” But he quickly got into character: “The last thing a therapist would do is to shy away from any of those topics. I feel like he’s old school in his approach … and [he] comes from a place of real kindness and earnestness.”
Tommy Lee Jones delivers a richly layered performance as Arnold, who is stoic and frugal and a bit of a bully toward Kay at the outset -- but also a solid and loyal family man. As he moves toward acknowledging his pain, vulnerability and desire -- as he regains lost hope -- there’s almost a physical transformation, from frumpy to sexy.
“Little things mean a lot, it’s been said,” Jones noted. “Small details … individualize a character –- clothes, eye glasses, hair. Arnold’s kind of lost…”
“Everything you did was just perfect,” Streep chimed in. “Just the way he wore his shirts and the defeat in his posture -- every little thing carries a meaning. It was important to us that it feel authentic.”
How did Jones and Streep feel about the sex scenes?
“People think that’s harder than the [therapy] on the couch, but frankly the things on the couch are harder,” Streep explained. One particularly memorable intimate scene in a movie theater is “essentially comic, heartbreaking, real -- but it wasn’t as hard as breaking the cement of your emotional resistance to admitting loneliness; or having something really pierce you that your husband says about you. That’s the harsher moment. The movie theater was kind of fun.”
Jones agreed. “There was nothing particularly daunting about those sex scenes,” he said, adding he's wanted to work with Streep since they met in the 70s. “Think about a fight scene … you’re interested in the illusion of that, sure, but you have no interest in the real thing. It’s the same thing [with] the sex scene -- you’re interested in the illusion of passion or the illusion of disappointment or the illusion of longing. The real things … you shouldn’t bring to the workplace.”
The movie hilariously captures the quirks of long-married couples. (My husband and I are guilty of at least one crime of non-passion in the script: buying each other something for the house for Christmas.) Director David Frankel, who worked with Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” told me the actors could relate to Kay and Arnold as well.
“All of the golf references in the movie are ... very personal to Meryl because her husband is a golfer; in her home the golf channel is on all the time and … she really doesn’t give a hoot,” Frankel said in a sit-down interview, admitting the same is true in his marriage. “So that was fun for her in a teasing way.” (Streep has been married to sculptor Don Gummer since 1978.)
Shot in 37 days in a Connecticut town that stood in for Maine, “Hope Springs” makes the most of the coastal beauty, and has fun with small-town claustrophobia -- as everyone from the diner waitress to the bookstore clerk knows why Kay and Arnold have come to visit.
Frankel also captures the hypnotic rhythm of domestic life -– Kay serving eggs for breakfast, Arnold reading the paper, both closing the doors on their separate bedrooms at night. “This is how you march through the day and weeks and years," he said. "That’s what is so brave about her trying to take command and saying, ‘I’m not going to stand for this anymore.’"
For Frankel, who has been married 14 years, the film was personal as well. He recalled attending a dinner with seven of his closest friends from college. “We were in our late 40s at that time, and every one of us had in their marriages experienced separation, divorce or cancer,” he said. “I was shocked by that. So you know how much trauma there is in people’s lives. But for me, marriage is always worth fighting for.”
Finally, while the film isn’t age-specific -– “you can enter that zone of not knowing how to reach each other in an intimate relationship at any point” Streep insisted –- the viewer feels Kay’s urgency, her desire to not end her days in an emotional stalemate.
“Everybody is contending with the same thing at a certain point in life –- you see certain doors are closed,” said Streep. “You’re facing a shorter journey and [wanting to know] how to make it richer, how to make it mean something.”
"Hope Springs" opens nationwide on August 10.