Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving sexuality. 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Publication date: Publication Date Aug. 10, 2012
Review by Peter Canavese
Despite the film's title, which sounds suspiciously like a spoiler, hope could well come from these two people freeing themselves from a broken union. Can this marriage be saved? Streep's Kay Soames believes it can, by roping husband Arnold into a weeklong program run by "You Can Have the Marriage You Want" author Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell).
Dragged into Great Hope Springs, a quaint Maine fishing village, Omaha accountant Arnold immediately goes on the defensive, shifting gears from terse to out-and-out cranky. Everyone and everything else is the problem, and he's come only out of fear that Kay would otherwise walk out on him for good.
She's learned to be a little afraid of her husband, or of triggering his displeasure. Though he's not abusive, his has become a practiced neglect: The couple sleeps in separate rooms, with no more sexual contact than a morning peck on the cheek.
Feld gently forces Kay and Arnold to confront their issues, primarily the erosion of communication and the roots of their sexual schism. The doctor also assigns them "sexercises" to reconnect them physically. Though Streep's effort to save the marriage is half the battle, sexually frank screenwriter Vanessa Taylor wisely doesn't absolve her of responsibility for the couple's doldrums; Kay's realization of partial culpability gives Streep an opportunity for a subtly painful moment of truth.
The master class in acting put on by Streep and the particularly pitch-perfect Jones is the big draw here. While Carell, like his character, expertly facilitates, the leads put themselves under the microscope, finding fascinating rhythms in their give-and-takes, and speaking volumes with body language. As a result, "Hope Springs" turns out to be a different kind of mainstream movie, wielding star power to turn a giant, unsparing mirror on its target audience: in this case, baby boomers in stale marriages.
And so "Hope Springs" evinces a certain kind of bravery, with its relationship-confrontation subject matter and its consistent refusal to "open up" the story with, say, a subplot involving Carell and his own marriage or, indeed, any subplot at all. Instead, there's a weirdly riveting intensity -- and a real sense of privilege -- to the way the movie takes us into squirmy private moments and focuses nearly every scene on the sometimes funny, more often sad dynamic between the two lead characters.
Director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada"), who inherited the project when Mike Nichols unfortunately departed it, shows a tone-deaf allegiance to intrusive pop music that exacerbates a broader tonal imbalance. A handful of comic flourishes lean toward jokiness at odds with the film's greater scheme, of dramatic cultivated awkwardness between two people facing hard truths. Also, one might well wish for a chink in the armor of Carell's too-perfect shrink. But the movie's countercultural commitment to character and performance is enough to give "Hope" a try.