Film Review: “Hope Springs”

by Jason LeRoy on August 9, 2012

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in HOPE SPRINGS

starring: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell

written by: Vanessa Taylor

directed by: David Frankel

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving sexuality

It seems nothing less than miraculous that a film like Hope Springs is being released as a major studio summer movie this year; it is one of the strongest testaments yet to the endlessly glorious resurgence of La Streep. However bleak one’s outlook on American pop culture may become, the unexpected late-career commercial renaissance of Meryl Streep must always serve as a reminder that good things are possible, that talent and quality will still occasionally triumph. Were it not for Streep’s inspiring bankability, a film this honest and mature would have modestly premiered at a film festival and received a limited theatrical release. Not that Hope Springs is exactly high art, but it is far from surefire blockbuster material.

What we have here is the very unsexy story of a middle-aged married couple, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). Married for 31 years and living in an empty nest now that their children are all grown, Kay and Arnold have fallen into the familiar traps of comfort, routine, and age. They occupy the same space but rarely acknowledge one another, puttering about in their own orbits that cross at the same scheduled moments each day. They each still work, he at an office job and she at a clothing retailer where she spends her days folding sweaters with Jean Smart (how do I apply for this job?). For his part, Arnold is oblivious to any problems in their life together. But Kay is restless, yearning for something more, some semblance of the love they shared when they were a younger couple — “a real marriage,” as she says.

A furtive stroll down the “relationship” aisle at Barnes & Noble leads Kay to a book by Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell) about how to save a marriage. Upon further investigation, she learns that Dr. Feld offers an intensive week-long marriage counseling program in the tiny hamlet of Great Hope Springs, Maine. Suffused with both romantic optimism and fearful anxiety, Kay books herself and an extremely begrudging Arnold into the program. Settling into town and gradually discovering that the local economy seems to subsist almost entirely on Dr. Feld’s patients, Kay and Arnold begin having their daily counseling sessions with Dr. Feld. He guides them through a regimen of probing questions and gentle exercises, pushing each of them outside their dusty comforts in the hope of saving what soon becomes clear is a critically ailing marriage.

Directed by David Frankel (who previously guided Streep to box office gold in The Devil Wears Prada) and the feature film debut of screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (a writer/producer of such HBO fare as Game of Thrones and Tell Me You Love Me), Hope Springs is almost play-like in its tone and content. This is very much a two-character film; Dr. Feld is the only supporting character of any significance, with the rest of the cast relegated to walk-ons (literally, in the case of Mimi Rogers; Elisabeth Shue and Becky Ann Baker also make brief appearances). This is more of a psychological character study than a frothy romantic comedy; it doesn’t have any goofy pratfalls or saccharine romantic interludes. It feels quite real, and rather painful at times, with Streep and Jones each embodying fully recognizable (if overly familiar) human beings in all of their weaknesses and insecurities.

This is one of Jones’ finer performances outside the realm of action and westerns. He expertly conveys an entire generation of craggily reserved American men, rendering it all the more effective as he begins to reveal glimpses beneath the dismissive bluster of Arnold’s exterior. He also bravely tackles scenes that require him to behave insensitively to America’s middle-aged sweetheart and make her cry, which had to have been daunting. As Dr. Feld, Carell gives a subdued and non-showy performance that never pulls focus from the stars. He merely sits, asks questions, and listens, as counselors do. There are no Dr. Lowenstein-style theatrics.

And Streep, as she has done unfailingly for nearly four decades, reaches within herself and births yet another fully-realized female character. Kay is a bit meeker than we normally see from Streep; she’s the kind of woman who’d normally be played by Susan Sarandon, who’s excelled at this kind of role from Rocky Horror onward. And although Streep is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, I don’t think she’ll be scoring another Oscar nod for this one. She might even be underplaying just so that she’ll be spared yet another awards season gauntlet (although I doubt the Golden Globes will be able to resist tossing her a Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical nomination, launching her performance into the same privileged company as Angelina Jolie in The Tourist).

Hope Springs may be a deeply felt and refreshingly cheese-free acting showcase for its two stars, but it is not a great movie. There is something a bit clinical about its linear plot structure: it simply follows Kay and Arnold through the steps of Dr. Feld’s treatment program, with bookending before-and-after sequences to complete the portrait — it could easily pass as a dramatization of Dr. Feld’s fictitious marriage advice tome from the B&N. But with that pseudo-clinical approach comes moments of profound and uncomfortable truth, particularly around matters of sex and attraction, about which the movie is surprisingly frank. While Hope Springs could be viewed as a feature-length PSA about the value of couples counseling, the performances of Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones elevate it to a warmly poignant and resonant experience.

Hope Springs is now playing nationwide.

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