Making the Grades
Thirty-one years of marriage is quite an accomplishment—especially in an era when many couples barely get their children into preschool, let alone off to college, before they call it quits. Yet in the case of Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), 31 years of matrimony aren’t equal to 31 years of wedded bliss. Truth is they’ve become so trapped in their daily routines and separate bedrooms that they are more like bunkmates than lovers.
Desperate to rekindle the relationship after the passage of another disappointingly unromantic anniversary, Kay withdraws part of her savings and signs the couple up for an intensive, week-long marriage intervention session with renowned counselor Dr. Feld (Steve Carell).
I assume the lack of physical intimacy may be part of many unhappy relationships but it appears to be the main focus for Dr. Feld who jumps right in, asking the couple about their sexual activity and personal fantasies. While many of these scenes are played for comedy, others offer too much information, way more than feels comfortable when sitting elbow to elbow with a complete stranger in a full theater.
This excessive focus on sex is unfortunate since the film attempts to include other truths that may become apparent after years of togetherness. (I’m sure more than one couple has settled on a house gift rather than a personal one to celebrate an anniversary.) Routines, as the film depicts, are easy to fall into and hard to break out of. And sometimes not knowing, as Kay’s friend (Jean Smart) suggests, where the pieces will fall makes it scary to push for changes.
However, Streep, as the lonely, unhappy wife, Jones as her grumpy, money-conscious, tax accountant husband and Carell as the unflappable, soft-spoken counselor in the knit tie all put in outstanding performances. The quaint little town where the sessions are held (filmed in Connecticut) is charming and the musical score is full of fun tunes. Yet something seems to be missing in this little slice of life script.
Whenever this couple attempts intimacy, Arnold closes his eyes - tight. That’s not necessarily a problem except that so much emphasis is placed on this action it needs an explanation before the film ends. So does this husband’s seeming disinterest in his wife, particularly after the kids have left home. And one has to wonder if the only way to rekindle the romantic flame is for one partner to carry out the other’s fantasies even if it feels uncomfortable or degrading.
While neither husband nor wife is without fault in this unhappy relationship, the script still promotes a strong message about not giving up, even during the tough times. It’s a happily, unusual one from Hollywood. But after three decades of marriage, some extra pounds and a few more wrinkles, it seems to me that although the bedroom should still be a part of a strong relationship it can’t be the only ingredient in a happy marriage.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Hope Springs.
During counseling Arnold says there are some things you don’t say in a relationship because you can never take them back. Do you agree with him? What kind of things might be said during an argument that are more harmful than helpful? Is it being dishonest not to vent every feeling you have? Or is there a need for censoring yourself, even in a marriage?
Why can it be easy to fall into routines in a relationship? How difficult is it to break out of them? Does a marriage require frequent attention to keep it strong even after (or maybe because of) so much time together? What kinds of activities enhance your marriage?
How is this couple’s emotional distance portrayed physically on screen? Do you think one partner makes more sacrifices than the other to revive the marriage? Should Kay be willing to perform actions that make her feel so uncomfortable? Why does Arnold’s monetary expenditures show his love?
The film leaves many issues unresolved. Do you have hope that this couple will work it out or is this just a temporary improvement?