I am clearly not the target demographic of Hope Springs, the latest romantic comedy directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley and Me) starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as an old couple seeking to resuscitate their dead, sex-less marriage, but I fell for some of its geriatric charms anyway. Vanessa Taylor’s script, like this year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, aimed to tap into the underserved above-50 audience with its elderly jokes and forays into post-midlife sexual awkwardness. But like its mature characters, it also treats the subjet of sex with a little more sophistication and grace as it views it through the lens of a thirty-year old marriage, depicting it as the ultimate expression of appreciation and love. And I can imagine, or at least the movie helped me to imagine, that couples who have lasted as long as they have are in short supply of those, as the magic of young infatuation fades and previously sacred rituals become hollow, meaningless routines.
This isn’t a new genre for Meryl Streep: her other recent romantic comedy It’s Complicated also milked old-age sex of all its comic potential. In It’s Complicated, she played a divorced, aged woman who starts an affair with her ex-husband while at the same time dating (and of course, having sex) with her architect. In Hope Spings, she turns the tables around and portrays a woman named Kay who longs for physical intimacy (again, sex) and all the emotional attachments it necessarily implies. Her marriage has gotten so lifeless that she sleeps in a different room from her husband, the only physical contact they have is when he kisses her on the cheek (more like momentarily rubbing his lips across it) before leaving for work, and the only activity they seem to do is her cooking for him his breakfast and supper. Streep here is, in turns, hilarious and moving. She is able to communicate the distance and loneliness Kay feels simply through a longing stare or a pensive sigh. In fact, much of what needs to be said can be found in these small moments, where words are not needed to express her yearning for their younger, more romantic selves.
Tommy Lee Jones plays her husband Arnold, a raucous, ill-tempered man who seems content to just wait out his days until they go by. He doesn’t experience the same pangs as his wife; he has resigned himself to his life’s to his twilight years that he stripped off of any luster. He spends his days waking up, going to work, going home, having dinner, watching golf on TV, and sleeping ad infinitum. No touching, no hugging, no sex. It is not a surprise that Streep then enrolled the two of them in an intensive marriage counseling program ran by a certain Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell): she’s been living with a robot.
Dr. Feld, as played by Carrell, gives off a deceitful aura — he’s a little bit too sterile and detached, and his gaze pierces you in all the wrong ways, like he’s looking for a secret that he can use to manipulate instead of heal. He makes Arnold uneasy, and maybe Kay chooses to ignore his prying of their private lives because of her desperation. But he is a shrink that has given couples therapy for so long that he supposedly lays claim to the secrets that make marriages work, and for that Arnold is forced to begrudgingly trust him. He gives both of them tips and various ‘sexercises’ to help them start the ball rolling — some work, and some fail. Miserably.
And this is the source of my biggest issue with the movie: its treatment of marriage, its overt idealization of it, the way it packages crumbling unions like a broken machine or a sick body, something that can be fixed or medicated until its back to form. The movie made Kay fight tooth and nail even when Arnold was totally, utterly unbearable. Maybe I’m just cynical, but I didn’t find it particularly believable that he would have a sudden change of heart after just a week of therapy with a heart as hardened as his. It seems to me that his inner romantic wasn’t dormant, but plain, old dead, and the movie’s rushed third act didn’t help convince me otherwise. The film’s wrenching heart is in Streep, who gave a much more affected, believable performance.
But I guess that’s the special cultural niche of romantic comedies, to draw out our inner romantics and make us believe in the possibility of eternal love despite the occasional bumps. Real life, however, just isn’t that perfect.