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?”
“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.