All things considered, the mental health profession comes off pretty well in this year’s new sex movie Hope Springs. Marriage therapist and author Dr Bernard Feld, played by Steve Carell, is a fairly nice specimen by Hollywood standards.
He’s likeable, intelligent, confident-but-not-a-shmuck, and commits no flagrant boundary violations. You get the idea. He’s an OK guy.
He has one big problem, though — he’s a “destination therapist.” Couples come to see him for a week of intensive marital work. This has some obvious advantages, such as that the clients in his office aren’t too burdened by everyday concerns.
The big disadvantage, though, of being a “destination therapist” is that you’re under time pressure. This is a particular disadvantage when it comes to sex therapy.
You see, the human sexual system doesn’t like working under pressure. It’s naturally rebellious. Put it under pressure, and it will be all too happy to disappoint.
In Hope Springs, Meryl Streep’s husband Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is a world-class passive-aggressive, and hence is also happy to disappoint. It would be hard to imagine a more reluctant therapy client.
Dr Feld, trying to work quickly, chooses a forceful opening move. He likens therapy to nasal surgery. In order to open the breathing passages, one must first mobilize the bones of the nose by breaking them, then putting them back together.
Surgical metaphors are rarely appropriate in psychotherapy. And they’re virtually never appropriate in sex therapy. Hit someone hard enough in such a sensitive place, and they’re not going to feel like making love.
Feld’s forceful opening succeeds in knocking Arnold out of his comfort zone enough to enjoy splurging on a romantic meal with his wife. But when the couple try to make love afterwards, Arnold still has his eyes shut tight. His rebellious instincts aren’t to be tamed by force. This will take more than destination therapy.
What it takes, finally, for Arnold to lower the rebel flag is for his wife to be ready to abandon him for real. Maybe Dr Feld’s blow to the nose helped, but I’m not sure. I think it may have just intensified Arnold’s rebellion.
The subtitle of Hope Springs reads, “Sometimes to keep the magic, you need to learn a few tricks.”
That’s an unfortunate choice for a subtitle. If there’s one therapeutic message from the movie, It’s that tricks won’t do it. Better sex technique won’t do it. Wilder sexual fantasies won’t do it. Nasal psycho-surgery won’t do it.
Learning to express oneself helps. But the only thing that finally succeeds is for Arnold’s wife to pack her bags and be ready to go.
Like a child who won’t leave the park until the family is ready to drive away, he comes running at last.