January 14, 2013
Every Monday, The CSPH takes a look at a book or film focusing on an aspect of sexuality. This week we are looking at the 2012 film Hope Springs, directed by David Frankel, and starring Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, and Steve Carell.
Showing the current state of a long-term marriage between “Kay” (Streep) and “Arnold” (Jones), the film opens with Kay and Arnold celebrating their 31st year of marriage over dinner at home with their two grown children. When their daughter asks her parents what they got each other for their anniversary, Kay, trying to hide her embarrassment and disappointment, says that they bought each other a new cable subscription. Sleeping in separate bedrooms. Kay and Arnold begin each day with the same routine of Kay making breakfast and Arnold reading his paper, and end each day with Arnold falling asleep in his lounger while Kay sulks off to bed clearly unsatisfied with the current state of their marriage. After finding a self-help book about “saving your marriage,” Kay registers her and Arnold for an intensive couples therapy week in Maine with Dr. Feld (Carell). Though Arnold is initially resistant, he ultimately agrees to come along for Kay’s sake.
While the role of a quiet, eager to please, yet dissatisfied housewife seems too easy for Streep’s level of acting talent, her depiction of Kay creates sympathy and compassion for her character. Jones’ stubborn, sardonic Arnold feels a bit forced in the beginning, but as he becomes more vulnerable during therapy, his character softens and it is easy to forget you are watching the same Tommy Lee Jones from the “Men in Black” series. However, Carell’s role as a couples therapist is played surprisingly tame and his calm tone of voice and soft facial expressions make him seem like he really could work with couples.
Though “Hope Springs” has all the ingredients of being another “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), where an older heterosexual pair find rekindled sexual energy through ridiculous interpersonal conflict and jokes about old people being “intimate,” this film is only barely a comedy and succeeds at covering sensitive issues about sexuality in a long-term marriage to which many heterosexual couples are likely to relate. Frankel does an admirable job of following Kay and Arnold through the beginning of couples therapy with all of its awkwardness and defenses as Dr. Feld encourages them to be open to the process. Using the analogy of marriage as a nose with a deviated septum that you have to break first in order for it to start healing, Dr. Feld’s therapy shows how difficult therapy can be, as we see the effects of this breaking in Kay and Arnold’s attempts to complete the “intimacy homework” assigned and the frustration each of them feels as they continue to fail at connecting sexually. Where the film would have benefitted is in its resolution of Kay and Arnold’s conflict: at the end of the film we see Kay and Arnold finally connect and we are led to believe that their marriage is saved. Unfortunately, this unrealistic jump seems to trumpet the message that “sex solves everything” and does not offer any kind of resolution between Kay and Arnold emotionally.
This film does succeed at offering a more honest portrayal of older-adult sexuality that is not often seen in the media. For that reason, it is worth seeing, but keep in mind that it is just one perspective of sexuality in long-term marriage and does not mean that all films about sexuality in marriage have to involve therapy or sexual dysfunction within the couple. Sometimes, however, reigniting a sexual connection can arouse feelings of love and gratitude as it does in the case of Kay and Arnold.