Anyone going to see Hope Springs thinking it is 2012's version of It's Complicated may be disappointed. This is not a broad comedy. It's more a drama presented humorously. It's warm, pleasant and rather realistic.
Kay and Arnold have been married 31 years. To say they're in a rut would be an understatement. But Kay wouldn't mind doing the same things in and out, if they did them together. Instead, they're often in the same room (though not the same bedroom) but worlds apart. Arnold doesn't hear or see her anymore.
She doesn't just want a change. She needs one. Their marriage, maybe her sanity, depends on it. She's inspired by a marital self-help book and books a weeklong counseling session in Maine, with its author, Bernard Feld (Steve Carrell). She tells Arnold she's already booked the trip, having paid for it with $4000 from her CD. He's annoyed that someone at his (accounting) office helped her access the money and he knew nothing about it. He tells her she can just go alone.
The next day she gives him his boarding pass and says she hopes he will be on the plane when it leaves the next day. She will be. Now, since we've seen Arnie at work and know he hasn't arranged for vacation time off, I think it's a little much that she basically gives him an ultimatum that he has to be prepared to leave for a week the very next day . . . or else.
Afraid of the "or else" (based on the fact that his co-worker's wife left him), Arnie gets on the plane at the last minute, grumbling all the way.
They meet with Dr. Feld who Arnie thinks is a quack. Carrell plays the role completely straight. So, don't go expecting wackiness from him. One wonders why Carrell accepted the part. It requires no effort from him. Perhaps, he just welcomed the opportunity to work with these stalwarts.
This movie works because the characters are believable. They have grown apart, but it's no War of the Roses. They don't fling wild accusations. There were no affairs, no impotence, no devastating trauma. They're two people who loved each other once, still love each other, but have grown apart. Arnie hurt his back years ago and slept in the guest room due to the pain. He never ended up going back to the master bedroom. They haven't had sex in almost 5 years.
We see him rebuff Kay's overtures early in the movie, but in therapy they reveal that it was Kay who stopped the sex first. Arnie says that sex stops being fun when you know the other person doesn't want it. So, he stopped asking. He doesn't say it, but eventually the lack of intimacy created a wall between them that he couldn't knock down, even when she asked. He still desires sex, desires her, but can't expose himself and open up without great difficulty.
The exercises that Bernie gives them work -- and that's the problem. When Arnie finds himself aroused, it creates more distance between them, not less. The focus is on the sex, but it's just a metaphor for the couple's psychological divide. Kay says she doesn't know why it's so hard to touch someone that you love. But the fear of being pushed away outweighs the potential thrill of being welcomed. Closed doors, closed hearts. Kay is in the Econolodge bed masturbating, something she hadn't done for years, because it only reminded her of what she and Arnie no longer shared. Arnie lies outside on the pull out couch, hearing her sighs, wanting her, but unable to move.
We see them make inroads in therapy, but Arnie runs away when Feld probes too deep and Kay is ready to end it and get a refund, exhausted from pushing too hard against an impenetrable force and, when Arnie is receptive, too afraid of making a fool of herself. We see them at their hotel packing to leave. But the next day they are back at Feld's office, ready to try again. We don't know how they worked through the road block, but it's clear that Arnie can't bear the thought of losing Kay, even if he doesn't know how to keep her. For her part, she tells Feld that Arnie is everything to her. Still, she thinks that if they can't come together, it would be less lonely being alone than it is staying with him. These two love each other and know they're loved, but don't feel wanted and are unable to fight through their insecurities, to find support on the other side. Bernie asks them isn't their marriage more important than their pride and they both say it is, but they say it to Bernie, not to each other.
Finally, things take an upturn and they have a perfect romantic evening, both straining to please the other and enjoying themselves immensely in the process. Kay had mentioned in therapy that Arnie scrunched his eyes closed when they kissed, as if he didn't want to see her. She felt he just wanted the sex, not her love. On this momentous night, as Arnie reaches a climax, she reaches up from beneath him and twists his head so he's looking down directly at her. That's when everything falls apart and Arnie's passion subsides. Kay takes this as proof that she no longer appeals to him. When he said he wanted her physically, he lied. Arnie objects, "It has nothing to do with that," but doesn't elaborate. Defeated, they return home. Arnie carries in the suitcases, leaves Kay's in the master bedroom and, though the audience is hoping he'll deposit his bag right there too, it is not to be. He walks down the hall to the guest room and closes the door.
One egg and one strip of bacon for breakfast. He'll be home from the office at 6 o'clock. Tax talk at the dinner table. Arnie is ready to fall back into their old routine, but Kay says she doesn't know if she can go back.
She packs a bag to leave. She's only supposed to be cat-sitting for a friend, but when we see her pack family pictures, we know she soon plans to leave for good. We hear her sobs from behind the bedroom door. It's not clear whether Arnie hears them too, but he certainly stops at the door, fingers its grooves. Wants to open it, but can't. Somewhere in the middle of the night, he finds the courage, goes into the room and he and Kay finish the mending that started in Maine.
Over the closing credits we see them renewing their wedding vows, with Dr. Feld presiding over the nuptials, then celebrating with the family. That might seem too sappy, but since it happened during the credits, one doesn't have to accept it as the true end of the movie, if it feels too contrived for your tastes. Since much of the movie felt so real, swallowing the obligatory happy ending is not especially difficult.
What resonated most with me though was not what ended well, but the night that went wrong. Arnie never explained why he couldn't consummate that romantic evening in Maine. Kay thought it was because he couldn't look at her, but I think the truth was he couldn't bear for her to look at him. The camera focused on Tommy Lee Jones' red face, engorged, every fleshy pock mark emphasized as Arnie heaved over Kay. There were no glamor angles in this movie, no gauze on the lens. The wrinkles showed and made the path into Arnie's head so easy. You really sensed how hard it can be to see yourself through someone else's eyes, if you don't feel their love is unconditional.
So often, rejection is just uncertainty. Arnie and Kay didn't get through to each other, as much as they let the other in.
Jones' "Arnie" possesses a gentleness that isn't apparent in the trailers. This movie isn't a masterpiece, but it doesn't take as formulaic a route as one might expect. The script is original not because it's brilliant or sharp, but because most of the words feel real. And if you go in thinking Meryl Streep could convey that realness more effectively than Jones, you'll be surprised.