So Hope Springs, starring Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a solidly conventional, romance starved, middle-aged couple quickly approaching their senior years, opened last weekend with a relatively strong gross of 14+ million. It will be interesting to see how, or if, this movie catches on with Mr. and Ms. Moviegoing Public for the long haul. In case you haven’t heard, Hope Springs is being marketed as one thing when in actuality it is much much different than what the handlers at Sony Pictures would like all of us to believe. From the coming attractions trailer, which has been circulating for a few months (at least), Hope Springs looks like a smirky comedy about a couple of sixtysomethings who want to reinvigorate their love life by visiting a sex therapist–played by the one and only Steve Carell. Everything about it just screams “hilarity.” I mean, c’mon, comedic maestro Steve Carell as a sex therapist? How can that not be worth a laugh or two?
Well, guess what? The movie is almost nothing like what it appears to be in all the publicity materials. Indeed, one critic even made a comparison between Hope Springs and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage–and Ingmar Bergman, to clarify for some of my younger readers, was never accused of sacrificing story and characterization for a joke. No, almost without exception, Bergman was known for dark, brooding works that painted a bleak portrait of Scandanavian life–and Scenes from a Marriage, which was originally presented as a TV series in Sweden, was no exception (just longer). Hope Springs, despite its optimistic title, isn’t completely devoid of laughs, but they are, well, incidental–and most of them are presented in the trailer. I’m surprised at just how clever the people were who assembled the trailer from the reels of completed footage, but don’t get me wrong: I actually enjoyed the film though it was hard to sit through at times.
Streep plays a woman who craves physical intimacy and urges her husband of thirty-one years to join her in Maine for an intensive couples retreat with a high profile therapist. To clarify: the characters played by Streep and Jones, with both their children grown and living on their own, no longer even sleep in the same bedroom let alone the same bed. Streep’s Kay believes her husband no longer finds her sexually attractive and is profoundly miserable because of it. Of course, she is not entirely blameless in the dissolution of the sexual nature of their relationship as Jones’s Arnold eventually explains; meanwhile, poor Arnold thinks the marriage is fine. He finds comfort in the banal rhythms of their day-to-day routine, and he is not prone to express–or elaborate upon–his true feelings unless it comes to money. He’s a bit of a tightwad, and as the old saying goes, he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. It’s obvious from the beginning how desperately unhappy Kay is, and, yes, she and Arnold are clearly in a rut, but once she and Arnold are behind Dr. Feld’s doors, the full extent of their dysfunction becomes all too uncomfortably real–especially to anyone who has ever, say, been married or been in an otherwise monogamous long-term relationship and has sought couples counseling when things get rough, which they do, inevitably.
Those inclined to stick with the movie even when the drama starts hitting too close to home will be rewarded by the gift of two truly astonishing performances–and good–great–performances, to me, are always worthy food for thought. Of course, by now we have every reason to expect two such heavy-hitters as Streep and Jones to deliver each and every time, but I think their work here surpasses most expectations–and without all that painfully earnest emoting that sometimes reduces smart performers to strained self-consciousness. Nope, these two are about as a raw and real as most of us care to imagine while sitting in a darkened theatre. We certainly don’t need them to do more “acting” to make their point. It’s actually refreshing to see Streep be this good after winning her third Oscar for 2011’s silly–ludicrous–Margaret Thatcher biopic (The Iron Lady), which served more as a showcase for her talents at impersonation, than at skillful, robust characterization, and in which she was also hampered by a deadly script and was only brilliant in isolated moments. In Hope Springs, she’s so good that it hurts–and that’s the point. While watching the movie, it’s hard not to get caught up in the swirl of emotions that Kay finds so overwhelming. The audience feels something for this character and all her frustrations; it’s not all about admiring the effort and technique propelling the performance. If it’s possible, Jones might actually be even better because his character is at such a disadvantage, meaning that he must humanize a man that the audience is not primed to root for in the same way that they are with Kay; after all, her dissatisfaction is obvious, and she is noticeably less afraid to open up and share her feelings than is Arnold. We just want him to snap out of it and get with the program, yet he’s the one, or Jones is the one, who has to put up a good fight and not give too much away lest he lose his position in the relationship. As such, Jones must measure how much he’s willing to display at any given time, and he does most of that through some pretty revealing body language and one devastating closeup. Bravo.
What else? Carell is good. He adds a thoughtful presence though his performance is almost too subdued for its own good. I like Carell, but as my friend pointed-out, almost anybody could have played his role. The same can also be said about the high profile cameo appearances made by Mimi Rogers, Elisabeth Shue, and Jean Smart. I wonder if the bulk of their performances were left on the proverbial editing room floor. Hope Springs is directed by David Frankel, who previously worked with Streep on The Devil Wears Prada; the script is by Vanessa Taylor. It’s her first feature film though she has plenty of experience writing for such TV shows as Game of Thrones, Everwood, and Alias. Her script shows confidence and a lot of polish though it’s not as seamless as it probably should be. For starters, the root of Arnold’s behavior is never fully addressed. Oh sure, there’s something to be said for ambiguity–and I certainly have my own ideas about Arnold and his sense of mortality–but it seems like a lot of territory is covered enroute to a discovery of some kind only to have the whole thing dropped with an easy line or two of dialogue. Also, somebody somewhere probably thought it would be funny to see a worldly sophisticated actress such as Streep engage in a running gag, so to speak, involving oral sex, and while I’m no prude and understand that people in their 50s and 60s (and older) deserve to have as much fun in the sack as the younger generation(s), I think the repeated emphasis on the one particular act sends a confusing message, as if the success of the marriage depends on Kay being able to service her husband accordingly. Luckily, that notion is also abandoned. Oh, and there’s also something peculiar about this movie’s math. Kay and Arnold have been married for 31 years, and we’re to understand that they met while Streep was a college student, and Jones was some kind of teaching assistant. Okay, let’s say that this movie was filmed in 2011 (likely), so 32 years prior to that would be 1980, yet in 1980, Streep turned 31 years old, and Tommy Lee Jones turned 34, which makes it seem highly unlikely that they would have realistically still be attending college at that time. Of course, the characters didn’t just meet and get married straightaway though I do believe the script implies that theirs was a whirlwind courtship–and they were married before Kay’s identity was fully formed, thereby allowing for a significant chunk of her dissatisfaction. In that case, these sixtyish actors are actually portraying people my age–fiftyish–or thereabouts, and that seems like a cheat. Why couldn’t the characters be the same age as the actors? I’m sure the answer is all about one thing: marketing. Marketing, marketing, marketing.
Of course, movies have to be marketed–there’s nothing novel about that–but sometimes I have to wonder about the people making such decisions, and why studio personnel won’t just trust audiences to judge a movie on its own merits. I’m now going to borrow from the late great Pauline Kael to show how some of this “stuff” works. If Hope Springs turns out to be a disappointment to the people who buy tickets based on the cheeky preview, who then turn around and kill the movie with negative (or bewildered) word-of-mouth, the studio’s marketing department will likely lay the blame on a movie that was somehow inherently unmarketable, a hard sell, and they will feel like they did everything they could to save it by appearing, or stretching, to turn it into a comedy. That’s how the business of writing-off failures works. Like Kay and Arnold, these marketing types need to learn how to listen and how to accept responsibility for their actions. On the other hand, if the movie succeeds, well, at least the title wasn’t in vain.
Thanks for your consideration…