Review: Hope Springs
PLOT: In order to save their stagnant marriage, a middle aged couple (Meryl Streep & Tommy Lee Jones) head to Maine for an intensive, week-long marathon of couples therapy, given by an unconventional psychologist (Steve Carell).
REVIEW: First off, this isn't as zany as it sounds. I know, I know- Meryl and grumpy old Tommy Lee- being encouraged by Steve Carell as the shrink. I mean, Steve Carell as a shrink? Doesn't he usually need one in movies like this? However, to my surprise, HOPE SPRINGS turned out to be a very sensitive dramady- emphasis on the drama, about a relatable couple who've simply lost their spark.
Both Streep and Jones are perfectly cast. This is a reunion for Meryl with director David Frankel, who directed her to an Oscar nomination with THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. To me, this is an even better performance, as there's nothing cartoonish or exaggerated about her character, Kay- and the effect that living in a dull, lifeless marriage has had on her self-esteem. Kay is a very withdrawn, dowdy sort of woman, who perhaps intentionally desexualizes herself in order to just pretend there's nothing really wrong with the relationship she has with her husband, Arnold. They're more like roommates at this point, with their exchanges limited to small talk about their grown kids, and Arnold's job. They even sleep in separate rooms. Streep is very affecting as a woman that's lost any kind of intimacy with the partner she's still in love with, even if her own reserve, and frigidity played it's own part in the unravelling of the relationship.
As good as Streep is (and she's great), I was even more taken with Tommy Lee Jones, in the deepest performance he's given outside a Cormac McCarthy adaptation in years. Jones has always struck me as a reserved, cautious guy- and in that regard, the role of Arnold seemingly fits him like a glove. HOPE SPRINGS never falls into the trap where the man is the one responsible for the bad patch in the marriage, as they each had their part to play. He initially comes off as the quintessential gruff, Tommy Lee Jones-type, but later in the film, when his own insecurities come into play, the approach changes, with his awkward, almost-teenaged style fumbling attempts at pleasing his wife being particularly believable (and memorable). Together, Streep and Jones are very believable as a couple you'll root for- and their chemistry feels authentic.
As for Carell, truth is, this isn't his movie. He doesn't appear at all outside the therapy sessions, and the film is so focused on Jones and Streep, that there's not a single scene here where one of the two isn't present. This isn't really a criticism, as that's where the focus belongs, but casting Carell in the role is more of a distraction, as they might have been better off going with someone who's not quite as big a star. Carell is fine (like Jim Carrey- he's better playing it straight than people give him credit for), but his casting does feel like a bit of a stunt. It seems like just a way to add another name to the posters and trailers to get a bigger opening weekend. Given the huge applause the preview audience gave this once it was over, that probably wasn't needed.
Despite the serious subject matter, HOPE SPRINGS isn't nearly as heavy as I'm maybe making it sound. There's actually some very nice light comedy at times, such as Jones' awkward attempt to put into words that he'd like to try oral sex, and Streep's subsequent attempt to fellate him at a movie theatre (not sure how comfortable I'd be sitting next to a middle aged couple trying this). Frankel also knows when to pull out some of the old standby rom-com tunes (lots of Al Green, and Annie Lennox)- which are well-worn, but effective.
HOPE SPRINGS is a good, solid piece of counter-programing to a summer full of spectacle, and one that will likely find a very receptive audience not only with older viewers, but also people that just want a good, solid story about two genuinely three-dimensional characters. It's pleasant, and the message- that's it's never too late to reignite the flame in a relationship that's gone stale as long as there's still love, is a good one.
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