For a subject that's so popular, sex is something most people have a hard time discussing. This is especially true in Hollywood movies, where it's usually treated as exciting (9 1/2 Weeks) or dangerous (Basic Instinct) but rarely realistically. Even when sex is taken seriously, like in last year's addiction drama Shame, it exists in a world that's foreign to the common experience. Because the MPAA tends to freak out over the smallest bit of sexual content, carnal relationships are largely kept behind closed doors, robbing sex of a shrugging normalcy that would help demystify it. As a consequence, sex in movies is usually portrayed as a mind-blowing fantasy, which for most long-term couples doesn't square with their ordinary lives of kids, jobs, responsibilities, and familiarity. Audiences go to romantic comedies looking for the happy ending, but once a relationship solidifies, apparently we're on our own—Hollywood doesn't know what to tell ya.
While it's not a great film, Hope Springs is almost revolutionary in its straightforward approach to sex among married couples. For one thing, it upends the traditional narrative that married couples don't have sex at all—or, if they do, that it's executed in an embarrassingly clumsy way (e.g., the blowjob-in-the-car scene from Parenthood) that's meant to be hilarious because the characters are grownups and should stop trying to act like horny kids. For too long, sex in movies has been reserved for the young, the single, and the hot. By comparison, Hope Springs is about Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep trying to get it on. And while there are laughs, it's very rarely at the expense of the characters. You'd almost think the filmmakers were OK with middle-aged people having a healthy sex life.
Jones and Streep play a couple who have been married for 31 years. He's Arnold, a gruff accountant who bores his wife talking about his job and watching the Golf Channel. She's Kay, a sweet woman who can't remember the last time her husband touched her. Hope Springs couldn't start off with a more conventional setup: They sleep in separate beds; he's not very affectionate; they're so staid that they bought themselves a fancy new cable subscription for their anniversary. (If the movie wanted to be any more obvious that This Couple Is Having Problems, they'd be on separate laptops in the same room, not talking to each other—the standard Hollywood semaphore for fading passion.)
But the film gets interesting after Kay hears about Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), a bestselling couples therapist who offers an intensive, week-long session in an idyllic little New England town where sexless pairs meet with him to talk through their problems. Arnold reluctantly agrees to go, and the bulk of the film consists of Arnold and Kay discussing with Dr. Feld their sexual history and hangups. You'd expect punchlines and zany slapstick—and, unfortunately, there is some of that—but what makes Hope Springs remarkable is that this is all taken rather seriously.
If that surprises you, it's understandable. The initial trailer made Hope Springs seem very silly in a safe, pseudo-naughty way. But for a mainstream romantic comedy-drama, Hope Springs is frank in its discussion of sex. At the advance screening I attended, people at first snickered when masturbation or orgasms were discussed during the sessions, but then they realized that these topics weren't meant for laughs. (And can you blame people for assuming that? Masturbation, impotency, and orgasms are normally comic staples. We feel ashamed talking about them, so we make jokes instead.) But it's clear after seeing Hope Springs that Sony is nervous about selling its movie as a thoughtful, dialogue-heavy film about marriage and commitment. It's much easier to make it about Streep putting a banana in her hoo-ha.
This doesn't mean that Hope Springs is some searing drama. It's still a film meant to appeal to adults who want pleasant, comforting entertainment that features montages set to Annie Lennox's "Why" so that they know when to feel sad. But director David Frankel has a habit of making movies that are superficially very glib but are a lot more interesting underneath. Since hitting it big with The Devil Wears Prada, he has directed Marley and Me, an ostensibly adorable family film that was really a tearjerker about embracing adulthood, and The Big Year, that forgettable 2011 bird-watching comedy with Steve Martin and Jack Black that touched on the pointless obsessiveness of male competition.
The guy wraps his movies in bright, shiny packages that look harmless, but even with Hope Springs there's an attempt to get at some deeper emotional truth: the subtle ways that couples can take each other for granted and let their emotional glue (which includes sex) wear off. There's only one sorta-kinda sex scene in the film, but the really "shocking" stuff comes in the conversations between Arnold, Kay, and Dr. Feld, where issues about intimacy and performance and fantasies are all put on the table, so to speak. Carell in particular is great: His character isn't meant to be funny, and he's not one of those movie therapists who has one brilliant breakthrough after another. Mostly, he listens. And so do we—to the type of honest talk about sex and relationships that you just never hear in movies. It's not filthy or dirty or titillating—it's better than that because it's just real.
One of the toughest things about being married is that the culture really hasn't provided any model for how to conduct a romantic life. Young lovers and mysterious strangers in movies get to do all types of kinky things onscreen, but for people in long-term committed relationships, it's nothing but impotency jokes and interruptions from the damn kids. (And when there actually is a compelling film about a married couple's sex-life struggles, like Eyes Wide Shut, it meets with confusion and mixed reviews.) The lesson conveyed is that sex is something exclusively for the non-married, a miserable proposition for the rest of us who'd like to maintain a loving, physical relationship until the time we're as old as Arnold and Kay. In its small way, Hope Springs lifts the shroud away from the subject. That a Hollywood summer comedy starring two 60-year-olds is the year's most daring sex film is astounding. And also kind of sad.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.