Every day, sixtysomething empty nesters Arnold and Kay Soames go through the same routine: They lumber out of bed at 7:00 a.m. Kay fixes bacon and eggs for Arnold, her husband of 31 years, before he heads off to his accounting job. Each night she makes dinner before he retires to his recliner and falls asleep watching golf shows on ESPN. Then they go to bed … in separate bedrooms.
The next day, they do exactly the same thing.
But after years of being locked in this stultifying pattern, Kay yearns for something more. Something she and Arnold once had. Something they haven't had in a very long time: intimacy.
Browsing marriage books at Barnes & Noble, Kay comes across a self-help tome titled You Can Have the Marriage You Want, by marriage and sex therapist Dr. Bernard Feld. She buys the book. And she heads to Dr. Feld's website, where the affable therapist tells anyone who wants to save their marriage, "It's not too late for anyone who truly wants it and is willing to try."
Kay's sold. So much so that she books a weeklong marriage retreat at Dr. Feld's Center for Intensive Couples Counseling in Great Hope Springs, Maine.
Then she tells her husband.
"You want to go to intensive couples' counseling?" he snorts, glowering at her over the front page of the Omaha World-Herald at breakfast. She does. And, she confesses, she's already spent $4,000 of her own savings to fund the trip.
"Well, cancel it," penny-pinching Arnold replies.
At breakfast the next day, Kay hands her husband his plane ticket and lets him know that she's going—regardless of whether he joins her.
"I want a real marriage again, Arnold," she says.
"This is insane," he replies.
Insane or not, Arnold gets on the plane. "I hope you're happy," he grouses as he sits down in his seat. She's not. Yet.
The week of counseling ahead of them is most definitely intense. It's anything but easy. But it turns out to be life-changing.
Kay desperately wants to reignite intimacy—both physical and emotional—in her marriage. Arnold is deeply, stubbornly resistant to the idea, convinced that if 31 years of marriage isn't proof enough of his commitment to her, he's not sure what is.
Dr. Feld—or Bernie, as he's known to locals—has the unenviable job of trying to crack Arnold's formidable shell. But Bernie is persistent and perceptive, even when Arnold is anything but cooperative. His counseling focuses on Arnold and Kay's sexual relationship, as you'll see in "Sexual Content." But he's also optimistic about the possibility of the couple making real changes in their relationship as a whole, changes that lead to a renewed emotional connection. He's committed to helping them find "ways to communicate needs, cultivate intimacy and sustain intimacy going forward."
Kay eventually talks about how she and Arnold have lost a sense of shared purpose, that she has nothing to look forward to with him, and that she no longer wants to live that way. Arnold, for his part, eventually opens up about the season in which he longed for more physical intimacy with his wife but found her resistant to his initiatives. He confesses that he began to shut down emotionally because she wasn't responsive, an outcome that's contributed to lingering bitterness and distance.
Throughout, Bernie dispenses pearls of wisdom about what it takes to succeed at marriage. "Even great marriages have terrible years, so bad that you're just tempted to give up," he tells the couple after a setback. "But don't. Hold on. There will come a time when you'll look back on this moment as the prelude to something fuller and richer than you've ever experienced."
When Kay's on the verge of leaving Arnold, Bernie privately asks him whether he's done everything possible to save his marriage. If not, Bernie says, he'll live with regret later. "The moment is here," Bernie tells Arnold. "You have to ask yourself, have I done all that I could? Is this the best you can do?"
It's not, of course, and Arnold ultimately has a moment of awakening. Even as he tries to engage more with his wife, however, there remain barriers to rekindling intimacy that tempt them to retreat to their loveless status quo. But they do recommit to loving each other well and trying to relinquish self-protective habits.
Arnold and Kay eventually renew their vows. During the ceremony, Kay tells her husband, "I vow to give you the rest of my life, and I thank God every day that you're in it."
"So help me God" pops up as not quite a profanity and not quite reverent.
The opening scene sets the stage: Kay gussies herself up before bed in an obvious attempt to initiate sex with her husband. But he demurs, mumbling, "I don't … I'm … I'm not feeling well." "It's OK," Kay says, clearly devastated.
Browsing at the bookstore, Kay glances at a shelf full of sex books. (We, too, glimpse suggestive titles and cover images.) She picks up one called Great Marriage, Open Marriage, which is about sex with other people, then hurriedly puts it down. Bernie eventually gives her a book titled Sex Tips to a Straight Woman From a Gay Man, which she reads with interest. And we later see her suggestively holding a tube of what looks like cookie dough; she also buys bananas, something the film makes us think (for a while) is sexual, too.
Once counseling starts, the sessions and the exercises that Bernie gives the couple ramp up in terms of physical and emotional intimacy. They include, at first, simply touching each other sensually. We see Kay rubbing the inside of Arnold's clothed thighs and, very briefly, his crotch. It's implied that her actions result in an orgasm, which he's very embarrassed about. Several other increasingly physical interactions show the pair in bed and making out, trying to learn how to make love again—and failing to get there a couple of times.
A masturbation scene includes Kay touching her breast and crotch under the covers; she moans. The final sex scene (the only one in which the couple completes the act) includes sexual movements and sounds, as well as a brief glimpse of Kay's thigh (with Arnold on top of her). She wears a couple of nightgowns that cling to her chest revealingly.
In counseling, Bernie tells the couple that they're going to talk about every aspect of their sexual relationship, including their history, fantasies, masturbation, erectile dysfunction, positions, preferences, unmet desires and favorite sexual memories together. And so they do, covering all those topics in a confessional way on Bernie's couch.
We hear about oral sex, and then watch Kay trying unsuccessfully to perform it on her husband at a sparsely attended movie theater. (She can't bring herself to do it, and she leaves the theater crying and distraught.) Arnold also admits to having a fantasy about a threesome with a neighbor, and there's a follow-up gag related to that. A bartender jokes with regulars about how long it's been since they had sex.
When Kay and Arnold talk about the years she pushed him away, we hear about both his fidelity to her and his occasional pornography habit.
Crude or Profane Language
Eight or so misuses of God's name, at least four of them paired with "d‑‑n." Two abuses of Jesus' name. We hear "h‑‑‑" three or four times. Arnold labels Bernie a "pr‑‑k."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Scenes involve drinking wine, beer and champagne. After a fight with Arnold, Kay ends up at a bar where other patrons are drinking. One of Arnold's co-workers mentions that getting drunk one night was the catalyst that ended his marriage. Bernie makes a passing reference to Viagra.
Other Negative Elements
Arnold complains about everything, and Kay is the chief victim of his insensitive, curmudgeonly attitude. After a session with Bernie goes badly, for example, the couple is discussing it at a restaurant when Kay begins crying. "Oh, don't," Arnold snarls, "just don't." Later Kay tells him, "You're a bully. All you've done is make me feel terrible. I've had it," before storming out to spend the balance of the day by herself.
When a movie drifts into subject matter such as masturbation, erectile dysfunction and oral sex, it's usually done for one of two purposes (or both): titillating the audience with erotic imagery or going for cheap and sleazy laughs.
Hope Springs is an odd exception to that rule.
Make no mistake: There's a lot of sexual content here, both in terms of what Kay and Arnold talk about with Bernie and in their clumsy attempts to remember what it was like to touch each other. But director David Frankel's intent here seems to be neither erotic nor, ultimately, comedic (even though he does intentionally weave in humor). Instead, he pulls back the veil on a subject we rarely, if ever, see onscreen: the struggles faced by an aging man and wife who are desperate to renew the connection they have with each other, combined with a look at the significant hurdles involved in doing so.
Thus, Hope Springs becomes a poignant if sometimes raw film that affirms the beauty and dignity of marital oneness even as it deals realistically with the awkward, painful, embarrassing problems that can undermine intimacy along the way. But a bit of deviant sexual stuff creeps in too, muddying the instructive waters surrounding Kay and Arnold's journey toward reconnection.
And one serious question, of course, remains: Should such private, marital matters be turned into entertainment?
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Drama, Comedy, Romance
Meryl Streep as Kay Soames; Tommy Lee Jones as Arnold Soames; Steve Carell as Dr. Bernie Feld
David Frankel (The Big Year, Marley & Me, The Devil Wears Prada)
August 8, 2012
Adam R. Holz Adam R. Holz