Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Movie Review: Hope Springs

Hope Springs
Directed by: David Frankel.
Written by: Vanessa Taylor.
Starring: Meryl Streep (Kay), Tommy Lee Jones (Arnold), Steve Carell (Dr. Feld), Jean Smart (Eileen, Kay's Friend), Ben Rappaport (Brad, Their Son), Marin Ireland (Molly, Their Daughter), Patch Darragh (Mark, Their Son-in-Law), Brett Rice (Vince, Arnold's Friend), Becky Ann Baker (Cora, The Waitress), Elisabeth Shue (Karen, The Bartender), Charles Techman (Charlie, The Docent), Daniel Flaherty (Danny, The Bookstore Clerk), Damian Young (Mike, The Innkeeper), Mimi Rogers (Carol, The Neighbor).

American movies have a hard time dealing with sexuality in a serious way. Sure, they are good at making sex jokes, and turning young women into sex objects, but in terms of actually dealing with the subject of sexuality in any real way, American movies more often than not do not even try. And that’s why I’m disappointed that Hope Springs is not a better movie than it is – for it does try, for the first time in years, to actually deal with sexuality in real, adult characters. And yet for me anyway, something was holding me back from truly liking the movie as a movie, and not just an idea for a movie. It’s one thing to cast Steve Carell and then sap him of all his personality – his role doesn’t require one. But at the risk of offending the acting gods, I think the real problem with Hope Springs is Meryl Streep. Streep is one of the best actresses in screen history, and usually she can be counted on to deliver a great performance – in many cases (like The Devil Wears Prada or The Iron Lady to name but two), Streep is amazing even in a movie that overall just isn’t very good. Not this time.

The movie is about the 31 year marriage of Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). Their kids have moved out, and he can now be counted on to fall asleep in his recliner every night watching a gold show – before she lovingly wakes him up, and they stumble to their separate bedrooms. In the morning, she makes him the same breakfast – bacon and eggs – and he comes in and eats, reads the paper and then heads off to the office (where he is an accountant, of course, because he’s boring). Arnold is seemingly happy in this routine – but Kay sees it as a rut. She buys a self-help book by a marriage counselor – Dr. Feld (Carell), and decides she wants to travel to Maine to do a weeklong, in depth marriage counseling session. She books it, and the flight, and tells Arnold she’s going, and advises him that he better be coming as well – which he reluctantly does. To no one’s surprise, when they get there, Arnold spends most of the time bitching and moaning – about how much things cost mainly, but also how much of a phony Dr. Feld is. He doesn’t want to open up and share – especially when the topic turns to sex. Gradually though, the walls start to come down, and both Arnold and Kay are trying to move past their discomfort in talking about sex. But will it be enough?

The filmmakers could not have chosen better than Tommy Lee Jones to play Arnold. Jones is a great actor, yes, but what makes him perfect for the role is the fact that he has made a career out of playing men like Arnold – strong, silent types, who are wary to let their guards down, and betray any emotion to the outside world. Jones also has an underrated gift for comic timing. In short, Jones is perfectly cast as Arnold, even though he’s one of the last actors you would expect to see in a “romantic comedy” (which is how they sold Hope Springs in the trailers, even though it’s more serious than funny).

But Streep, who outwardly seems to be a perfect fit for Kay, I don’t think, ever truly gets inside her character like Jones does. Her Kay is meek, with a voice that rarely gets above a whisper, who is painfully shy and awkward when the subject of sex comes up. And Streep, who excels at playing more confident women, doesn’t seem like she ever truly gets who Kay is. To me, in this movie, Streep’s performance is too mannered – and she comes across as annoying. It doesn’t help that the movie seemingly places all the blame for this couple’s stalled sex life at the feet of Arnold (yes, there are a couple of moments that suggest Kay is at least partly responsible, but they are rushed through). And while I know I’m supposed to dislike Arnold’s close mindedness when talking about Dr. Feld, there is something rather smug about his calm demeanor that would annoy me as well if I were in that situation. In short, while I think I’m supposed to feel sympathy for Kay, I ended up feeling more sympathy for Arnold.

Now, to be fair, this could just be because I’m a man, so naturally I would take Arnold’s side. The movie is written by Vanessa Taylor – and it’s a screenplay that holds a lot of promise. I think it may have actually worked if they had cast someone other than Streep, who truly understood her character, and perhaps if they had hired a director other than David Frankel, who direction is uninspired, and his musical choices border on criminally indulgent and on the nose. So while I admire the intentions behind Hope Springs – and especially admire Jones’ pitch perfect performance – I cannot say it’s actually a very good movie. I just hope someone tries to do something similar – but better – in the near future.

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