Can this marriage be saved?

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in Hope Springs.

When I was a kid, my unhappily married mother would never come back from her massive weekly grocery-shopping expeditions without a magazine or two of the type pitched at housewives. Thus it was that I discovered the eternally running column in Ladies’ Home Journal called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” In those times, when the option of divorce encountered much more social disapproval than it does nowadays, the answer was pretty much always “Yes,” no matter how awful the marital circumstances. I don’t know what glimmer of hope or helpful tips Mom ever might have found therein, but somehow my parents slogged on, staying together “for the sake of the children” until I was nearly ready to head off to college.

In Hope Springs, the new dramedy by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me, The Big Year), aging Nebraskans Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold Soames (Tommy Lee Jones) are past that particular point of consideration, their kids having gone on to lives of their own. But in Kay’s estimation at least, they have finally come to their “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” moment. They have slept in separate bedrooms for many a year and had no sex at all in at least four years. Worse, Arnold shows Kay no affection whatsoever, and she’s wondering, after 31 years together, what the point is of staying married.

Arnold, for his part, is emotionally as well as physically withdrawn and in deep denial that their marriage is in trouble. He reenacts the same routine every day, reading the paper while he eats one egg and one slice of bacon for breakfast, then gives Kay the most sanitary and perfunctory kiss-on-the-cheek possible and heads off to his job as a tax lawyer. At dinnertime he complains to Kay about his clients, then watches golf on TV until he falls asleep in his recliner.

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Kay smiles relentlessly and responds with an upbeat “Mm-hmmm” to most of Arnold’s rants, but whenever he turns away from her, the pain and sense of loss are plain on her face. At her job at a Coldwater Creek store, she seeks relationship advice from a cynical co-worker but finds no comfort. Still, as Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” and when Kay comes across an ad for weeklong intensive marriage counseling sessions with a nationally famous psychiatrist named Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell), who happens to be headquartered in a mythical Maine town called Great Hope Springs, she takes it for a sign and plunks down a big chunk of her savings on the trip without asking Arnold’s permission first.

Predictably, Arnold reacts with outrage, refusing to go along, denying any need for counseling and vilifying Feld as a charlatan who’s just out to part the gullible from their money. For the first time, Kay tries to verbalize her dissatisfaction in the loveless marriage, the nights apart, the vacations always spent visiting family, the Christmas and birthday presents always being things like a roof repair or a new water heater. When Arnold digs in his heels, Kay says that she’ll go alone. Only halfway into the scheduled day of departure does Arnold relent and catch up to Kay at the airport.

And so begins a week of continuing resistance on Arnold’s part, gently undermined by Kay’s and Dr. Feld’s determination to coax him along. The process is punctuated by grudging false starts and embarrassing setbacks – especially once the subject of the couple’s sex life, which even in its best days never got past the plain-vanilla stage, gets broached. It’s only at this point that the film’s comedy potential kicks in, as Kay picks up a manual of sex tips from gay men for straight women and doggedly sets her mind to trying out activities that transcend her unadventurous previous experience.

Arnold is the sort of repressed curmudgeon role in which Jones has specialized for a couple of decades now, playing grouchy veterans like Agent K in the Men in Black movies and Captain Call in the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove. Meryl Streep being arguably America’s greatest living actress, it’s easy to take her heartrending transparency as Kay for granted, but it’s fun to see her get a chance to flex her underrated comedic skills for a change. Jones really has the tougher job here, as he’s challenged to convey the fraying of Arnold’s emotional armor with enough conviction to persuade us that this marriage really might be saved after all.

For all the polished professionalism of these two – not to mention the quality of the writing and direction, and Carell’s admirable restraint in the role of the earnest therapist – I’m still not quite sure that I buy the happy outcome. But after a seemingly endless summer of blockbuster action movies, it’s such a joy to watch two such dreadnoughts at work in a story pitched at grownups.

And one more leading “character” deserves special mention: If you’ve ever had the good fortune to visit the historic downtown of Stonington, Connecticut – which stands in here for Great Hope Springs, Maine – you’ll have the added delight of reexperiencing its charms on the big screen. If you’re stuck in an unhappy relationship yourself, the movie may not persuade you to entertain any giddy glimmerings of romance rekindled, but at least it’ll divert you for a couple of hours in a lovely New England town in the company of two of Hollywood’s most talented.

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