Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hope Springs

David Frankel’s “Hope Springs” is one of the first movies I’ve seen in a while that deals with the struggles of marriage and sex in a mature way. Of course you wouldn’t get that from the advertisements. The trailers make it look like a Nancy Meyers-style older-person romantic comedy.  And while “Hope Springs” does have jokes, it feels more like a light drama than a comedy.

The tone of the picture is calm as opposed to being high energy and screwball. Frankel moves the story along slowly and patiently and the script by Vanessa Taylor is frank and free of fat. It has two seasoned veterans: Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, giving rather subtle and complex performances. All in all “Hope Springs” is a nice little movie that the AARP audience will probably enjoy more than anyone else.

Streep and Jones play Kay and Arnold, who have been married for thirty years. Although you wouldn’t think so. They live in the same house but they sleep in separate rooms. Arnold gets up, Streep makes him the same breakfast, he goes to work without acknowledging her. He gets home; they eat dinner, barely saying two words to each other. Then they go to bed. Oh yeah and they’re not having sex.

Again, all of this is handled with maturity and sophistication. They don’t get into bickering fights where they exchange snappy dialogue at one another and Kay doesn’t complain about him to her girlfriends the next day. They’ve clearly been in this routine for years now and they seem to have accepted it. Jones is crabby, straight edged and no nonsense -- traits that he can convey effortlessly -- while Streep is fragile and timid, which is actually surprising considering she played such a shrill and domineering character in Frankel’s 2006 film “The Devil Wears Prada.”

But it’s she who decides that their marriage needs help. While browsing the relationship section at the bookstore she finds a book by a highly regarded marriage counselor, Dr. Fields (Steve Carrel, playing against type but ultimately in a thankless role). Eventually Kay and Arnold (begrudgingly) head off to the small town of Hope Springs to attend a week long intensive counseling with the Doc.

Not a whole lot “happens” in the movie. Arnold and Kay go to Hope Springs and get counseled by Dr. Fields. It’s far more character driven than plot driven. It’s more about the internal struggles of Kay and Arnold rather than the outer. Sure, Dr. Fields will give them an occasional marital exercise (cuddling with each other, for example), which will lead to some comically awkward moments, but thankfully there isn’t a ton of those, and the ones that are there don’t feel like dead weight or filler.

   Instead, Frankel devotes a lot of time to the actual therapy sessions. He gives the characters time to talk and lets each scene unfold patiently instead of quickly moving on to the next one. Jones is damn good at playing a man who’s uncomfortable and uninterested. Arnold is reluctant to do the therapy at first, he barely says anything and even storms out once or twice. However, slowly but surely his tough exterior begins to crack and he opens up. Kay does the same. Both of them have some kind of subconscious fear that prevents them from making contact with one another, let alone having sex. Sometimes they make progress, other times they go backwards. The whole mystery of the movie is, what exactly went wrong and can their marriage be saved? In that way “Hope Springs” is much deeper and more nuanced than you might think it is.

Really, the only major flaw of “Hope Springs” is that perhaps it plays things too safe. Overall, it is fairly plain and conventional, not taking many risks. For that reason old people will enjoy it the most. On the other hand, it’s still pleasant to see a romantic comedy/drama that’s this subtle and mature. Kay and Arnold don’t go to any extreme places or go on any extreme adventures. It’s simply a comfortable picture about an older married couple trying to save their marriage.


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