MOVIE REVIEW: Hope Springs



Normally when I write my movie reviews and editorials, I tend to have an anecdote in mind even before I see the movie that I want to open things up with about the movie or movies at hand.  I feel smart when I can weave and poetically wax some grand notion of a big picture to every movie I review.  Today, I don't have one for Hope Springs.  

I'm not experienced enough as a married man to talk about people who've been doing it for thirty years.  Unlike the characters in the movie, I've never gone to couples counseling and have never been to the state of Maine.  My parents are divorced and don't act like Meryl Streep or Tommy Lee Jones.  I'm not industry-savvy enough to examine the roles that older actors, especially women, north of 40 years old get and don't get in Hollywood or the few trends there are showing older married couples at the center of movies.  Finally, everything possible and appropriately great has already been said a hundred times about Meryl Streep.

I've got nothing for you other than the fact that Hope Springs is an excellent movie.  It's a fresh, mature, and honest piece of counter-programming in a summer of sequels and superheroes.  The film is neatly and perfectly packed with enough comedy to please audiences and enough drama to be taken seriously as not just a sex farce for the senior crowd.

Hope Springs introduces us to the married-but-distant couple of Kay and Arnold from Omaha, Nebraska.  They are just coming off their 31st wedding anniversary.  Played by the incomparable Academy Award winner Meryl Streep, Kay is a quietly troubled woman who works at a women's clothing retailer and comes home to a seemingly love-less marriage.  As an empty-nester, she misses the spark of her youth and longs to have the marriage she used to have.  Played with a constantly-fraying short fuse by fellow Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones, Arnold is a cheap, distant, and argumentative tax accountant who is a habit of routine and resident of the guest bedroom down the hall.  Neither Kay or Arnold are bad people or unfaithful.  They've simply drifted.  They have enabled and catered to each other's flaws and have allowed these years to add up in a hurry.

Surfing the internet and perusing the local bookstore in her imaginative free time, Kay becomes inspired by the works of Maine-based therapist Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell, playing it completely straight) and his couples counseling program.  At her breaking point, Kay sinks her own savings into the trip to Maine and Dr. Feld's week-long program and gives Arnold the necessary ultimatum.  Pissing and moaning the whole way there and while he's there, Arnold agrees to the trip and the counseling of Dr. Feld.  It's on Dr. Feld's couch, tenuously apart from each other, that Arnold snipes every opening and Kay pities herself until, slowly, truths and realizations are exposed and steps are taken to heal their wounds.  It gets awfully scathing, brutally honest, and messy along the way.

It goes without saying that any movie with Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep is going to be well-acted, but it bears repeating with Hope Springs.  I was constantly amazed to watch both of these two perform the hell out of their roles as much when they weren't speaking as when they were.  Streep can make even an arbitrary glance and internal lost-in-thought pose look like a Fourth of July fireworks show of calculation and fitting range.  She know what she's doing and everything she does is perfect in a non-glamorous and normal role that doesn't require deep makeup or an accent.  This is a rare romantic comedy for Jones and his inner red-ass demeanor fits this arena better than you would think.  Even with that acidic curmudgeon tone dialed in, he gets his moments of heart, warmth, and smile to match.  Together, the two play off of each other extremely well, in both comedy and drama.  Few co-stars can ever match Streep, side-by-side, but Jones succeeds.

To my surprise, Steve Carell more than holds his own as well, by doing what it seems like he never does in his usual roles: bite his tongue.  When I said earlier that he plays this role straight, I wasn't kidding.  No jokes.  No gags.  No funny faces.  No "that's what she said" and, you know what, it works.  Like last summer's Crazy, Stupid, Love., Carell proves once yet again that he's not a one-note joke.  He, like Jones and Streep, does great acting when he's not speaking too.  Carell shows patience in this Dr. Feld role when you literally watch him think before he speaks.  He doesn't try and steal the show.  He knows he's there to facilitate the show and open things up for Streep and Jones.  If you want your goofy Steve Carell, you're going to have to wait for Anchorman 2.  

Streep is re-teaming here in Hope Springs with her The Devil Wear Prada director David Frankel.  She does not need the career boost, but Frankel, an Entourage and Sex in the City alum, sure did after souring his Prada and Marley and Me reputation with last year's mega-flop The Big Year.  Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, in her first feature film credit after a solid career of "co-" roles behind the scenes on TV fare such as Alias and Game of Thrones, gives Frankel the engine to get the best out his performers.Frankel's work may not be as kitschy, decadent, and cool as what go-to senior rom-com director Nancy Meyers (What Women Want, The Holiday, Something's Gotta GiveIt's Complicated) puts out every time she gets behind the camera.  

What Hope Springs  provides more than her films is real honesty.  We spend a lot of time on that couch next to Jones and Streep and in front of Carell.  That's not always a comfortable place to be as a date-movie audience, but sympathy and genuine appreciation blossom from Hope Springs is better than the trivial and forced scenarios in other romantic comedies.  Like Larry Crowne from last summer, I was happy to be suckered into this one. You may be among an audience squeezing a fear tears beyond their laughs.  You may even shed a few of your own.

LESSON #1: THE HELPFULNESS OF COUPLES COUNSELING-- Steve Carell's Dr. Feld breaks this idea down perfectly to Tommy Lee Jones's Arnold in a one-on-one session saying "Couples come to me for two reasons.  They want help to save their marriage... or to end it."  In each of those two scenarios in real life, the healthy channels of communication aided by counseling and good therapists has true value.  Sometimes we all need help opening up about our true feelings and sometimes an arbitrator is just what is necessary.

LESSON #2: THE PITFALL HABITS OF A BAD MARRIAGE-- While Kay and Arnold's issues are all their own, we get to see many bad habits of a failing marriage in action.  We witness what the loss of intimacy, connectivity, and communication has done to an aging couple.  We witness the regret, distance, and scars that have followed that loss and breakdown.  Don't be surprised if you find yourself judging your own marriage's flaws beside Kay and Arnold.  I'm not saying they should replace the ushers at the theaters with divorce attorneys for screenings of Hope Springs, but the self-evaluation is eye-opening and healthy.

LESSON #3: THE NEEDED STRENGTHS OF A GOOD MARRIAGE-- For as much as we are presented with the bad habits, we also bear witness and are emboldened by the path taken by the characters to build the necessary strength to restore and create a good marriage going forward.  It takes work and both spouses have to try.  Older couples may see themselves in this movie.  Some may see their parents, while others may see what their own marriage will need going forward to the age of Arnold and Kay.  That same self-examination from Lesson #2 can also measure the positives of Lesson #3 while watching Hope Springs.  Once again, it's a healthy thing.