‘Hope Springs’ movie review: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones seek marriage counseling

A crowd-pleasing sitcom-level relationship comedy, Hope Springs doesn’t really fully explore its central concept (nor could it, really, with a PG-13 rating) or earn its reaffirming ending, but two terrific central performances help boost this into above-average territory. It’s also great to see a mainstream Hollywood feature that focuses on the relationship between a couple in their sixties, and one that takes the subject of sex seriously. 

Mostly seriously, at least; Hope Springs does contain some gags, mostly involving the sexual (in)experience of the Meryl Streep character, that go for easy laughs. But this is also a genuinely thoughtful film that takes a look at a common problem among long-term relationships, and attempts to understand its characters and their situation. In other words, it’s not entirely unlike Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.

Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married for 31 years. While they still love each other, their relationship has slowly declined to the point that they sleep in separate rooms, haven’t had sex in years, and barely touch each other. They don’t even get each other gifts; their mutual anniversary present was a cable TV subscription. 

Arnold seems content in the relationship, but Kay wants things to change. Looking for advice at a local bookstore, she comes across a self-help book by marriage counselor Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). Soon, Kay and (a begrudging) Arnold are off to Maine for an intense week-long therapy session with the doctor; Carell, effectively restrained, makes for a great level-headed presence to examine the couple’s problems and help to overcome them.

Streep, who won an Oscar for her Margaret Thatcher wax figure in last year’s The Iron Lady, is infinitely better here as a living, breathing person; it’s a performance quite unlike any other Streep character, rooted in the weaknesses and indecisiveness of her character. Kay reminded me most of the Karen Black persona in Five Easy Pieces, quite a departure from the usual Streep role.

Jones is equally good, if much more at home in his role; still, despite the expectedly rough exterior, there’s a sensitive, vulnerable side to the character that we don’t usually see from the actor. Both actors are able to create real, identifiable characters that the audience can really empathize with. Hope Springs isn’t the kind of film that garners awards-season recognition, but the performances here really carry the film. 

One small distraction: Streep’s character bears the same name as Jones’ in the Men in Black franchise; every time Jones utters “Kay” here in that trademark diminutive fashion, I pictured him speaking to Will Smith’s “Jay”.

Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), working from a script by Vanessa Taylor, wisely keeps himself out of the picture and lets his actors do their thing. Hope Springs isn’t a great movie, and it deserves a better ending than the arbitrary resolution presented here, but it’s a rare piece of mainstream filmmaking that presents a serious look at sex and relationships wrapped up in a light rom-com-friendly package. For general audiences, this is just about as good as the genre can get.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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