“Hope Springs”: Can Intensive Couples Therapy Help?

The new movie Hope Springs, starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, as introduced by film critic Carrie Rickey, philly.com: “Kay and Arnold have been wed 31 years. They sleep in separate bedrooms and live parallel lives. When she reaches across the canyon of the breakfast table, he retreats further into his armored shell. When he makes a joke, she hears it as a personal insult. She is miserable. He is oblivious. Can this marriage be saved?”

Check out the trailer for Hope Springs:

If the above clip suggests a comedy, this is not how it in fact plays out. IMDB labels it both comedy and drama, but the latter is more accurate, I think. This is serious business, a marriage in serious trouble, and a load of serious couples therapy complete with assigned “sexercises” is headed their way.

And by a load of therapy, I do mean a lot more than most couples would initially seek. Whereas many couples eventually try a weekly hour or so, few would plunk down big money to fly across the country for week-long intensive counseling with a guy who’s written a relevant book that one spouse found in a store after reading a few words on the cover.

Speaking of self-help books, although the book written by Steve Carell‘s Dr. Feld and discovered by Kay pre-therapy is not real, his recommendation of Sex Tips For Straight Women From a Gay Manby Dan Anderson, who’s gay, and Maggie Berman, who’s straight—is.

As a shrink Steve Carell plays it clinical and earnest. Arnold’s imagining (in the trailer) of Dr. Feld speaking to his spouse the way he addresses them in therapy is spot-on. Ian Buckwalter of NPR: “Presiding over everything is Carell, who never hams it up as Dr. Feld, a vision of Zen calm with a beatific grin and a voice so soothing it’s like auditory Xanax.”

In addition to Streep and Jones, another of the film’s best features is the realism behind their issues, including how difficult it can be not only to address those issues but to achieve progress. The AARP review emphasizes the film’s significance in this regard and offers some relevant statistics about married couples’ intimacy issues:

Hope Springs is a cinematic breakthrough. It’s the first film I know of that addresses the sexuality of older couples head-on. (I’m ruling out Something’s Gotta Give as too farcical.) In the case of Hope Springs, Kay and Arnold’s sexuality has subsided below a slow burn: They’re marooned in a sexless marriage, a condition by no means unusual in this country. According to the landmark Sex in America survey, about 2 percent of married adults never have sex, and 12 percent are sexual only a few times a year. For argument’s sake, let’s say that means 5 percent of couples do it never or almost never. That’s 1 couple in 20, so pretty much every older adult knows people in a sexless (or nearly so) relationship….

Back to the question of can this marriage be saved? Carrie Rickey (philly.com) recognizes that director David Frankel is actually more concerned with asking how?

…Feld likens his marital tune-ups to the doctors who repair a deviated septum: Got to break the nose in order to fix it.

As the wife whose feelings are right on the surface and the husband whose are in a lockbox, Streep and Jones earned my empathy without asking for it. There are few actors whose body English is as eloquent.

And as a fly on the wall for their characters’ couples therapy and homework, I simultaneously cringed, cried, and cracked up.

Lisa SchwarzbaumEntertainment Weekly, cites the “exquisitely painful, realistic therapy sessions” in her review, and notes that Dr. Feld’s work with the couple “ought to have audiences squirming with uncomfortable self-recognition.”

Justin ChangVariety: “…(I)ts key achievement is its engagement with the mechanics of therapy, the indignities of the aging process, and the characters’ desperate, fumbling attempts to recover something that may be irretrievably lost — scarcely the most fashionable or marketable movie topics, yet scrutinized here at length and without apology.”

In sum, it’s a movie well worth seeing—but only if you don’t mind a good bit of realism along with your romance.

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