When your marriage sucks in Nebraska: a discussion about Hope Springs

Not knowing how to review Hope Springs, I asked B if she would mind being interviewed about this movie which concerns an older couple seeking marital counseling from Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) during a week long visit to a beachside resort area in Maine. We discussed the film at a crowded, noisy International House of Pancakes. B had some Fit and Healthy nut and blueberry pancakes with egg substitute while I picked at some French toast. The coffee was mediocre.

FD: What did you think of the movie?

B: I thought it was surprisingly good and risky in all sorts of ways.  In a culture that privileges youth, this movie demanded that Kay and Arnold look and act their ages. There's nobody in this film pretending to be young.

FD: I was appalled by the trailer because I couldn't believe that the entire movie would concern itself with an older couple restoring intimacy in their marriage. With its feel-good title of uplift, Hope Springs struck me initially as aesthetically repugnant.  

B: It's an issue that men are not comfortable with. Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) does not want to talk about it.

FD: Isn't there something deeply grotesque about couples therapy?  Isn't the movie voyeuristic and potentially cruel, with the audience laughing at the awkward exposure of this couple's problems?

B: I think of the therapy as a trope.  The movie obliges the audience to share in the therapist's kindness, and that softens the tendency towards ridicule.  Also, without the therapist, the couple won't talk. They need that context to expose themselves.

FD: Still, it bugs me.

B: You don't like therapy.

FD: Or tacky therapeutic films that function like a Dr. Phil show. Even the movie admits that there could be a charlatan side to Dr. Feld's methods. Sometimes Arnold's mockery of the doctor proves the most humorous, such as when he imagines the doctor saying to his wife: "Mildred, I find it very interesting that you are naked."

B: (laughs)  It's the psychobabble you don't like.

FD: It just doesn't seem dignified. What did you think of Streep's portrayal of Kay?

B: I thought that she was acting her head off, since the character doesn't have much personality. Kay says things like "I don't have any fantasies."  She doesn't have a career.  Her whole world has been her children and her husband.

FD: Yes, I found her character striking in its dowdiness, the way she appears to have few dimensions beyond her unhappiness with her marriage. Other women would have many other things going on, such as Miranda Priestly [my favorite Meryl Streep role in The Devil Wears Prada directed by David Frankel, who also directed Hope Springs].

B: Miranda Priestly doesn't have a homelife, so she doesn't make a good counterexample. Julia Child would work better.  Kay reminds me more of Joanna in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), another understated role.  It's not that Kay doesn't have a career, it's that she's inarticulate.

A baby starts crying. Annoyed, I look around for the source of the disruption.

B: They have a brand new infant.

FD: It seemed weird to me to see Streep play someone who doesn't seem all that bright.

B: She's inarticulate.  She initiates the therapy passive-aggressively. Dr. Feld has to tell Arnold that she's thinking about leaving him.

FD: You said earlier that the film is ultimately about aging.

B: Hope Springs explores the way intimacy changes as you age. It goes back to our youth culture. Our culture is driven by so many people intent upon not getting older. If you don't ever talk about the emotional and physical changes of aging, then you can't accept those changes very well.  People try to cover them up instead. If you deny that intimacy changes, then you risk losing it.

FD: Can you think of specific examples?

B: I am really impressed that Tommy Lee Jones would allow himself to be photographed from below [from Kay's point of view] where he looks startlingly his age.  They don't put her in a position like that as much. Her character is very discreet, and it makes the movie less laughable, since she tends to dress age appropriately. Her job at Coldwater Creek emphasizes that point as well.

FD: How?

B: They have elastic-waisted skirts, middle class clothing designed for women who are thick in the middle, women who are not going to change their bodies in a radical way by going to the gym, i.e. not Madonna.

FD: What did you think of the Designing Women actress Jean Smart (who plays Kay's friend Eileen) saying "You risk everything to shake things up."

B: Smart's a great comedienne, and I think her advice has some truth. Sometimes you have to take the risk, make yourself supremely vulnerable. That's where Kay decides that she would rather have nothing than to have what she has. They have to, in Dr. Feld's terms, "break the nose" so that the patient can breathe.

FD: I liked Kay's point about how she would feel less alone separate from her husband than she does with him without intimacy.

B: Right.

FD: What did you think of Tommy Lee Jones' performance?

B: I loved him.

FD: You loved him?

B: I know a lot of men like Arnold.  He's completely shut down in who he is, locked in everydayness. He compartmentalizes like hell.  He doesn't have anybody to talk to.

FD: He has his buddy at the accountancy firm, Vince (Brett Rice).

B: But they don't talk about anything of importance.  Arnold goes through life anesthetized. When you feel something, you have something to lose. I have a friend who became so deeply attached to a cat who died when she was young that she lost that ability to emotionally connect with animals. You worry so much about what will happen, you shut down your emotions, refuse to risk it. Arnold doesn't want to talk about it because he's afraid of what he might lose.  It's better for him, he thinks, to just ignore it and plod on.

FD: Yes, but doesn't Arnold make a valid assertion when he says that there are some things that you don't say to your wife for a reason?

At this point, a large dark cloud looms outside. We both pause to look out of the window.  

B: I hope that it's not a tornado. (returning to the topic) If it's something really important to the relationship, you've got to say it.

FD: How much is everydayness part of the problem with their marriage?

B: It keeps them from ever having conversations. Every morning, Kay fixes Arnold a piece of bacon and one fried egg. They have a routine where they are insulated from each other and therefore never really talk.

FD: I was struck by how often Arnold's watching TV.

B: Or asleep.  He's often not even watching it.

FD: How much do you suppose their problem is their inability to be erotic once they are in their 60s?

B: I don't think it has anything to do with eroticism.

FD: What? What of their attempts to cater to each other's erotic fantasies? Isn't all that important?

B: When you lose your intimacy, you can't be erotic with anybody. If you can show vulnerability, then the erotic emerges from that. What's missing is their ability to be intimate with each other. Lightning strikes. That struck in the woods behind Sears! Again, we pause to look outside.  It's raining heavily.

Kay and Arnold have the failure at the hotel because they believe that all they need to do is have sex, but that doesn't work.  The eroticism has to emerge romantically.  It can't be tacked on. That's one of the issues with aging--eroticism has to change, maybe even take a backseat to intimacy.

FD: Why did you like Tommy Lee Jones' performance so much?

B: He just seems so realistic to me. Reminiscing, Arnold says to Kay "You were so pretty, you could've had your pick. I couldn't understand why you'd ever choose somebody like me."  He may not have ever told her something like that before. Once, an old boyfriend of mine drove 3 hours to my dorm in the middle of the night and told me "I will never stop loving you." He never told me again.  He was somehow moved to say that. When Jones said something like that, it felt so genuine to me, like that old boyfriend's declaration. It wasn't something that he ever thought he would say; thus, when he said it, it meant all the more.

FD: What about their (spoiler alert) renewal of vows on the beach?

B: It only worked because it was in the credits.

FD: But, romantic comedies tend to indulge in sickeningly exhibitionistic scenes where people proclaim their love in front of an audience.

B: Yes, you're right.  It was watered down, however, since it was in the credits.

FD: In the climactic scene, Arnold becomes proactive (just as Benjamin does in The Graduate), and he does so by walking out of his bedroom into hers.

B: That's what he had to do to restore their marriage. They had physically and emotionally closed the doors on each other. He had to leave the boy's room he slept in and reunite with her. When she tried to go into his bedroom, it didn't work. He had to go to her bedroom. Downstairs there's an open floor plan. Upstairs there was all of those divisions.

FD: So, the movie succeeds in part due to David Frankel's restrained direction, the two leads taking on such unassuming, unflattering roles that fully acknowledge their age, and its convincing depiction of Kay's isolation and despair in spite of the domestic comforts of their household.  Written by Vanessa Taylor, the film mostly avoids the kitschy traps that lay all around its cheesy, Lifetime channel premise (even though I wonder if having their marriage kind of fixed may plunge them into an even greater despair). Even the tender, concerned, ever-therapeutic presence of Steve Carell doesn't ruin things.

B: Right. It almost didn't matter that Steve Carell was involved.


Kelli Marshall said…
I'm not sure who B is, but I like that she pointed out the following about Jones, as it's one shot I also noticed and couldn't stop thinking about:

"I am really impressed that Tommy Lee Jones would allow himself to be photographed from below [from Kay's point of view] where he looks startlingly his age."

B's right: it doesn't happen with Kay from that angle exactly, but at the same time, Streep's not depicted flatteringly when she's lying in bed, the camera hovering directly above her (at least once at the beginning and a couple of other times, if I recall correctly). As would anyone's in that position, her face is flattened out and appears wider than normal on that pillow. I commend Nicholson and Keaton for doing the same in their love scenes in Something's Gotta Give.

Glad you two made it out of the storm! ;)
Thanks, Kelli. B is my significant other, an English professor who sometimes suffers my interviews when I feel like I'm out of my depth with a given movie. For all of Hope Springs' problems, it still struck me as the most original (and strange) of this past week's releases, and B wanted to see it. Both Jones and Streep go through the movie in all kinds of unflattering poses and clothes. To see movie stars adopt such studied bland midwestern normality--they decide to be so dull, it becomes interesting.

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