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The commercials for Hope Springs lay out a fairly typical romantic comedy with one big twist: the leads are in their 60s. As Kay and Arnold, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones get to have fun in the territory usually reserved for people half their age. Like any typical Hollywood couple, they are unable to talk to each other until a self-help guru gives them the tools to reconnect and rediscover wedded bliss – a messy journey that includes shocking revelations, embarrassingly executed sex, and all manner of typical rom-com awkwardness.
In the hands of screenwriter Vanessa Taylor and director David Frankel, one might imagine a pretty raw and revealing look at Baby Boomer sex. Before Hope Springs, Taylor penned some episodes of the interpersonal sex drama Tell Me You Love Me, while Frankel directed a number of episodes of Sex and the City. The ingredients were primed for a great, or at least enjoyable, final product – and glimpses of its potential are there. Hope Springs boasts some delicate moments and revelations, such as how Kay and Arnold’s body language morphs with emotional release, and the interpersonal truths they begin to reveal in therapy. But these are smatterings that ultimately have no impact, truths quickly forgotten by the rampant desire for a happy Hollywood rom-com. Even more devastatingly, they are delivered through a character with absolutely no identity outside of her relationship with her husband and (briefly) children.
Any personality Kay seems to possess come from the mannerisms and talents of Streep. There is literally nothing to this character outside of her husband and family, though neither have any particular need for her. Every morning she plays the dutiful wife – serving a hot breakfast alongside the morning paper so Arnold can eat quickly and rush off to work. It’s so routine that he doesn’t notice or acknowledge it; Arnold ingests and runs without a thank you, a kiss, or sometimes even a look at his wife of 30-odd years. Kay tries to share her plans for dinner, and he doesn’t care. She goes to work at a clothing store, idly folding clothes and griping to her coworker about her marriage. She comes home, prepares the classic sit-down dinner as Arnold gripes at her about his many daily annoyances. He barely notices her, let alone listens to her. After dinner he watches golf commentary and naps as she cleans up and looks on sadly. When it’s bedtime, she wakes him and they trudge upstairs, only to go to separate bedrooms and shut the doors. The next day, the cycle repeats.
Streep’s Kay gets no interest of her own, save the drive to have sex and reconnect with her husband, which leads her to buy an “intensive” week of therapy from a self-help guru. She has no hobbies, no conversations about anything other than her marriage. She’s soft-spoken and nervous, continually bullied by Arnold’s commanding presence and endless griping. As she reveals in therapy, she doesn’t even have sexual fantasies or wishes outside of her longing to reconnect with her man. Every single aspect of Kay’s character is defined by her relationship to Arnold and how she can please him – something that is quite literally manifested when Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) “prescribes” Kay a sex help book, without requiring Arnold to ever hone his technique or empathy. (Oh wait… no… she says she likes red wine. So there’s that. And she seems to appreciate nice things, though that’s hardly a definitive character trait.)
Arnold, in contrast, is pretty clearly defined. He’s a math whiz and accountant who lives well but continually fears about the family finances. He loves golf and always makes time for the morning paper. He has elaborate sexual fantasies and desires. Arnold is most comfortable when he’s ranting up a storm about every and any little thing, and though he’s quite rigid, he comes around fairly easily.
The setup begins with potential. The pair embodies the stereotypical yet recognizable sexless older couple whose lack of communication has added layers of suffocating dysfunction to their marriage. Their revelations in therapy begin to show the deep problems that can exist inside such a simple, comfortable and familiar exterior, especially for Kay. There’s a heavy feeling of both unrest and identity crisis that permeates the middle of the film. Arnold’s problems are mainly reactionary and fairly simple to unravel and mend. Kay’s, however, reveal both deep insecurities and an even deeper failure to form and maintain an identity outside of her husband.
In one powerful moment, Kay wonders if she’d be happier alone. Her revelation makes it seem like Hope Springs will dare to journey into new territory – framing happiness not as a simple joining of two people who are momentarily blissed out with lust and love, but about being true to oneself and not just one’s romantic life. Over and over the film shows Kay putting her heart on her sleeve and being chastised and embarrassed for it. She’s bullied and humiliated time and again, and this small little question seems like the perfect happy ending – being free of the passive-aggressive abuse and servitude. It offers the possibility that Kay can finally become her own person, to live for herself and not completely for someone else. Her initial lack of character could be explained by her finally pushing to live beyond the confines of her marriage and enter into a period of self-discovery. Instead, the film pushes forward towards an all-too-neat ending – a resolution that is so drastically different than the middle’s emotional revelations that it seems like the end was hacked off and replaced with saccharine simplicity. (Taylor did, in fact, throw out the last 60 pages of her original script after feedback from a mentor, though she suggests it was for kitschy aspects.)
But there’s nothing sweet about the insinuations in this seemingly light film. In fact, it’s highly troubling that a film quite clearly made for the female, rom-com-loving demographic would include a heroine so devoid of any personal traits and interests, who reveals real, troubling problems, and has them solved by (Spoiler Alert) a serious screw. It’s hard not to think of Chasing Amy while watching the film. If Holden McNeil, Kevin Smith’s clueless hero, can ironically mention the ridiculousness of the idea that sex can inspire a woman to deep emotional and ideological changes, then this film shouldn’t dare to let a little passion wipe up a sea of inner discontent.
Despite the script being on the Black List, without self-discovery and empowerment, Kay is nothing but a one-dimensional character who makes Bella Swann look intricately drawn. Syd Field once wrote that to make a character a “real, multidimensional” person, the writer must define the professional, personal and private aspects of a character’s life. Kay has no private aspects and only the beginning of a professional characterization – one that still seems to be framed by her husband – an entry-level job that looks to help Arnold’s ever-present financial paranoia. It’s clear that Kay wants her husband to be interested in her – mind and body – again, but one can’t blame his disinterest in a woman who shows no interest in life outside of serving and loving him. It gets to the point where you wish for her to have even the most stereotypical of interests – a knitting circle here or book group there – to occupy her time.
In an interview, Streep said: “This movie is not, as Tommy says, trying to engineer social change. This is to entertain.” But the notion that we could/can/should be entertained by a woman without any identity outside of her husband – in the year 2012 – is problematic at best, especially when said character reveals multiple worrisome revelations about her inner psyche that are dealt with in the most superficial of ways. Forget the Bechdel Rule, which Kay very easily fails. Hope Springs doesn’t even let her, the main character, be a well-formed lead for the female audiences she was created for.
It’s telling about the state of Hollywood film when a romantic comedy written by a woman, marketed to women, relishes in a blank, passive female slate eager to please a crotchety, domineering man. And it’s a shame, because Hollywood desperately needs to embrace stories of romance and life in older generations. They just need to do so with well-rounded characters who can act out more than the dutiful wife who lives only for her man.