Marriage is one of the great subjects—perhaps the great subject—of the novel. That is not true of the cinema. Movies end with marriages; they do not begin with them. Marriage is the ultimate fulfillment of the wishes and dreams of cinematic characters. It is not the ongoing condition of their lives. We are simply to assume that the characters we see kissing at the altar as the credits roll are going to be happy.
A potent new movie called Hope Springs begins with a marriage in its 31st year. The wife approaches her husband looking for intimacy and is rebuffed on the grounds that he’s feeling gassy because he ate pork at lunch. The wife, Kay, is played by Meryl Streep, which proves to be a bit of a problem for the movie later on. Tommy Lee Jones plays Arnold, her husband, in a gobsmacking performance that will win him an Oscar next February. (I was right the last three years on Best Actor, so harken unto me.)
Kay and Arnold live in Omaha. He’s an accountant. She works at Coldwater Creek in the nearby mall. They have two grown children, no grandchildren as yet, and they have run out of things to say to each other. They sleep in separate rooms, ostensibly owing to his sleep apnea. He falls asleep watching golf shows every night. Finding her life increasingly intolerable, the passive Kay takes action and books them for a week of intensive couples counseling with a marriage guru named Bernie Feld (Steve Carell) in a town in Maine called Great Hope Springs.
The town is charming. The therapist is kind and calm and wise. No matter. Having said almost nothing to Kay for years, Arnold is suddenly unable to keep quiet and issues a litany of complaints: Breakfast costs too much; therapy is nonsense; they don’t have the $4,000 to waste on this foolishness. She takes it and takes it until she can take it no longer.
Then, as the days progress, the ice starts to thaw. They, and we, begin to learn what has happened to build the walls between them—and, to the inestimable credit of Vanessa Taylor, who wrote this prodigious debut screenplay, their woes derive from nothing major. It’s just the ordinary wear and tear of a very ordinary life that has rent the marital fabric.
I don’t think I’m making Hope Springs sound very appealing, and that’s because it isn’t, really. In one sense, it’s too good to be appealing because it tries to look honestly at something very real and very difficult and very hard to romanticize or soften without degrading itself into Hallmark goo.
But in an effort to keep the focus relentlessly on Kay and Arnold and the aridity of their sex life, Taylor and director David Frankel fail their characters. They make these middle-American lives seem far bleaker than the existence any real-life Kay and Arnold would likely have. Where are their friends? What are their hobbies? What about church? Arnold watches shows about his golf swing, but we never see him enjoying himself on a golf course. Kay seems to take pleasure in almost nothing.
This inability or refusal to set Kay and Arnold in any kind of milieu is unfortunate, because, had the movie offered us a more rounded view of them, it would have made their company more pleasant and their self-inflicted wounds seem all the more tragic. The movie that would have resulted might have been a masterpiece.
Still, Hope Springs is a ray of hope for mainstream American moviemaking—it is a sign of engagement with real life, the most surprising Hollywood release in years. It was probably made only because of Meryl Streep’s remarkable emergence in her late 50s as the most financially successful female star in Hollywood. She can write her own ticket, it would appear, and this is the ticket she chose.
Alas, I’m not sure Streep can play an ordinary person any longer, if she ever could. While she is almost certainly the American film actress nonpareil, her particular gift is for giving three dimensions to oversized personalities that might otherwise descend into mere caricature. She doesn’t know how to scale herself down to Kay’s level.
That is not the case with Tommy Lee Jones, to put it mildly. Jones’s specialty has always been the unexpectedly extraordinary man, whose world-weary demeanor masks an inexhaustible intelligence and hard-won wisdom (or devilish villainy). Arnold is none of these things. He’s a well-meaning, repressed, parochial fellow who finds himself forced out of his comfort zone and scrambles, sometimes desperately, to get back to it. With a precision and subtlety he has never before shown in his 40 years on screen, Jones simply becomes Arnold Soames of Omaha, Nebraska—a man whose carefully circumscribed life begins to disintegrate right in front of him. He is heartbreaking. When would you ever have thought Tommy Lee Jones could break your heart? For that gift alone, Hope Springs deserves to be celebrated.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.