Film Review: Star-powered Hope Springs prompts talk about marriage

By Rebecca Cusey, Special Contributor…

Hope Springs
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving sexuality

It’s become quite fashionable to cluck and sigh at romantic comedies that end with the girl getting her guy and, perhaps, a ring.

“That’s just the beginning,” we scold. “What happens after that? What about grown-up romances? The ones that happen after 10 or 27 years of marriage? What about love that lasts?”

Hope Springs is just the kind of pro-marriage, grown-up romance we say we want.

In fact, quite grown-up. As in Baby Boomer. Some might even say old.

Kay, played by the luminescent 63-year-old Meryl Streep, celebrates her 31st anniversary with Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who is closing in on his 66th birthday. With two children recently launched into adulthood, a comfortable but not wealthy life, and an expectation of at least a decade of good health, the two Boomers should be settling into a period of freedom and adventure.

But it’s not that easy.

Kay is miserably unhappy. Arnold has been a good husband: faithful, respectful and hard-working. Over the years, however, they’ve drifted into a sort of intimate separation, a close-knit estrangement. Although practically able to read each other’s minds on matters like what to eat for dinner or whether to turn down the air conditioning, they sleep in separate bedrooms. They never touch, except a rote kiss on the cheek in the morning. They certainly never make love.

Kay, now that the work of childrearing and career-building is behind them, wants the marriage they once had. She packs up a protesting Arnold and heads to an intensive marriage retreat at the office of Dr. Feld (Steve Carell in a serious, non-comedic role).

Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep star in Hope Springs as a couple seeking counseling after more than 30 years of marriage. PHOTO COURTESY SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT

That’s it. That’s the movie.

Most of the action takes place as Kay and Arnold nervously perch on Dr. Feld’s couch or argue in their rented Econo-Lodge room. There’s no shocking revelation or dramatic showdowns or attractive third party, just two former lovers trying to find their way back to each other.

In any other hands, such a film would be insufferable. However, Ms. Streep is so adept at inhabiting any role she plays, she makes the film very good. She makes Kay all passive passion and wounded energy, a woman lost in her own desire for something she is not sure exists. Mr. Jones’ gruff, grumpy cowboy persona is exactly right here, as he harumphs and grumbles his way through counseling.

It feels like watching a real couple.

There’s one particularly fine moment when, in the midst of an emotional and draining argument, Arnold mentions something about one of their children that they both affectionately find ridiculous. Through all the tears and growls, they both chuckle.

Only master actors can pull off such a moment of intimacy. Those little moments of intimacy make the audience root for the marriage to succeed. Losing it would create a void in the universe.

Still, with all this beauty and determination at the heart of Hope Springs, there’s also an assumption at its core that makes me uncomfortable. The question comes down to what the purpose of marriage is.

Baby Boomers—the generation of Ms. Streep and Mr. Jones and the intended audience for the film—essentially redefined marriage as an institution whose primary goal was to make the couple happy.

Prior to that generation, couples chose well or poorly, jumped with both feet, and hoped for happiness. Marriage was more a matter of duty, of fulfilling a promise, of aiding society by taking care of children and parents and each other, of working together. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it created its own brand of misery, but the definition of marriage was fundamentally different than today.

In a moment when it seems possible that Kay may leave Arnold, she murmurs that maybe she might be happier alone than with him. Even with his gruffness and insensitivity, I found myself wondering if she really could leave this man to face old age alone, to endure the coldness of the world alone, the advancement of ill health and death alone, for something as trivial as unhappiness.

That’s a serious desertion.

This is not to say unhappiness is unimportant, only that Kay is focused on her feelings and not her duty. She focuses on her sad emotions—which spring from admittedly valid roots—and not on a determination to do good for another human being. The elusive quality of happiness is paramount. The Me Generation’s tendency to self-focus feels so natural we almost forget to question it.

A supreme irony emerges here. Those who prioritize a quest for happiness most often find despair while those who prioritize serving others and doing one’s duty usually find happiness as a byproduct.

This leaves me of two minds about this very watchable movie. On one hand, it’s fantastic to watch a couple fight not just for their marriage, but for their marriage to be excellent. On the other, it pales in comparison to some of the real-life, truly heroic marriages I’ve seen.

 Ms. Cusey is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. This review first appeared on

Special Contributor to UMR

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This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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As a baby-boomer married now 37 years, I and my husband have watched the two marriages of the previous generation with awe and interest (my folks were married 43 years at the untimely death of my father; my husband's almost 60 years). It was they who said, during rough patches in their marriages, "Right now it is only the fact that we are married that is keeping me in this marriage." That was duty speaking, and they all willingly (and lovingly, in their own ways) dispatched that duty. The introduction of happiness as the glue holding a couple together is,… Read more »

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