The last time my 14-year-old daughter saw me and my wife being affectionate, she said, "Ewwww, old people kissing." Now, I'm not so old — barely half a century. But let's be frank. My daughter's no different from many people whose objects of fantasy are young and freakishly fit. So even a mild, cutesy little comedy like Hope Springs about two sexagenarians trying to have sex can seem shocking, even transgressive.
Boy is it vanilla. It opens with middle-class department store clerk Kay (Meryl Streep) putting on a pretty nightgown and showing up in the bedroom of her accountant husband, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). Yes, they have separate bedrooms — but not because they're on unfriendly terms. It's just he snores and has a bad back and started sleeping down the hall and never returned to their bedroom. Now he receives her overtures with bewilderment and then quiet protestations of fatigue. It has been a while, and looks as if it's going to be quite a while longer.
Writer Vanessa Taylor does a good job capturing the noncommunicative communication between two people who've been together for 30-odd years, their kids grown and gone. Well, Kay wants to communicate. But Arnold is shut down — nailed down. Searching desperately for advice, Kay happens on the work of a couples therapist named Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), and she books a week of sessions in the fictional town of Hope Springs, Maine. He mulishly doesn't want to go — but she says she's getting on the plane with or without him.
At first the laughs come from Tommy Lee Jones' scowls and deadpan horror at the very idea of discussing sex: You'd think it was 1950 and Dr. Kinsey was asking questions that could get him arrested. But Carell is so earnest, so unironic, that he seems cleansed of all impure thoughts. If people didn't know Carell from The Office, they'd probably go on the Web and look for Dr. Feld's book.
There are many setbacks, but Kay and Arnold finally start to enjoy being together, to snuggle and so forth. But then they have to take it to the next level.
Director David Frankel gave Streep her big comeback role in The Devil Wears Prada, and here, working in a different key, he handles every scene as gently and discreetly as if he's Dr. Feld. A lot of people might respond positively to this tone, so different from that of everything else at the multiplex, especially the superhero picture on the next screen, the sound of which is probably bleeding through the wall. Underneath Jones' crusty sighs and Streep's chirps and burbles — her character is such a dear — there's a vein of melancholy. This is a post-reproductive-years chick flick. There's an unstated but implicit idea here that if a man's sex drive goes, he suddenly has no reason for emotional intimacy.
I know people who've cried at Hope Springs. My problem is that Kay and Arnold are so scrubbed of anything dark or angry or idiosyncratic — I guess to make them more "universal" — that they could be named Mr. and Mrs. Bland. All that's missing are commercials for estrogen cream and erectile dysfunction meds.
Normally I separate my feelings about a movie from any thought of how it will be received, but I'm unusually interested in the popular reception to Hope Springs. There has been a lot of hand-wringing in the past decade about the plummeting age of the target audience for movies — and how studios will put $200 million into yet another superhero flick in hopes of a billion-dollar payoff, and nothing into movies about ewww-old-people-kissing. With films like this and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, will there be more cries for chick flicks about nonspring chickens?
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