The phrase "for better, for worse" doesn't begin to cover all the permutations a marriage might go through in the years following a wedding ceremony.
"In sickness and in health" and "for richer, for poorer" hit the dramatic highlights. But "better/worse" carries a vague "whatever" tone that might explain why 50 percent of marriages end in divorce.
In "Hope Springs," Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) are still married after 31 years, but romance is long gone. Their mornings are a choreographed routine in which Kay cooks and serves breakfast to Arnold, while Arnold sits, eats and reads the newspaper, ignoring Kay except to announce what time he'll be home from work.
Arnold is a partner in an accounting firm in Omaha. Kay works at a Coldwater Creek store. The implication is that she's been working there part-time since the kids left home, probably just to fill her empty hours.
At night, Kay makes supper; Arnold eats and then dozes off while watching golf programming on TV. When Kay is finished cleaning up, she wakes Arnold and they go upstairs to bed — in separate bedrooms.
After lonely Kay tries to seduce Arnold and he rejects her, she starts looking for professional help. She finds a therapist who does "intensive couples counseling" in Maine, and she schedules a weeklong session.
Arnold grudgingly goes along, but he complains about everything from the architecture and prices in the quaint Maine town to the empathetic therapist, Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell). It would appear that Kay's efforts have been in vain ...
Except that this is a movie, and in movies, things work out, right?
"Hope Springs" isn't the frothy comedy the trailer implies. While at first it appears that Jones is aiming for his very own "Grumpy Old Man" sequel, the movie takes another, more realistic direction. There is comedy — often bawdy — to lighten the load, but "Hope Springs" unearths issues that many couples will find familiar and deals with them head-on. Their problems aren't just sexual; they have to do with the ruts and assumptions that can accumulate over decades. No one bears all the blame.
Streep and Jones make the pain believable and keep viewers rooting for the couple, even when things seem bleakest.
Streep may have had her toughest accent yet with this shy Midwestern housewife who seems worlds removed from her recent characters, but she gets the sound and the soul. It definitely feels like a stretch for Jones to play a normal guy, though Arnold's repressed anger puts him in a familiar zone.
Carell tackles perhaps the biggest challenge, playing Feld totally straight. The doctor is not without a sense of humor, but Carell incorporates that into the form of a sensitive, perceptive and caring professional.
Director David Frankel and writer Vanessa Taylor both have strong, reputable roots in TV, but Frankel's film work has been along the lines of "Marley & Me" and "The Devil Wears Prada." His inclination to make crowd-pleasers keeps "Hope Springs" tied to pedestrian heights, but Streep, Jones and Carell give it something extra.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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