'Hope Springs' movie review
By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
“Hope Springs” is a minor miracle of a movie.
Within a Hollywood tradition accustomed to treating sex as something titillating, taboo, gauzily idealized or downright pornographic, finally someone has made a movie that treats it in the riskiest way possible: as the physical expression of intimacy between two flawed but recognizable adults.
It’s a madcap idea, sure. But “Hope Springs” goes for it, with a degree of integrity and candor rarely seen in American movies.
The big winner at the Cannes Film Festival this year was a film called “Amour,” Michael Haneke’s austere, uncompromising portrait of a devoted elderly husband confronting the end of his wife’s life. “Hope Springs” plays like the more cheerful, reassuring and commercially palatable version of a similar story -- although there are moments in the film that are so frank, so painfully direct, that viewers may wonder how such instances wound up in a mainstream piece of mid-summer entertainment.
Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married for 31 years, bringing up two children in Omaha and pursuing a comfortable upper-middle class life. Now in their sixties, they sleep in separate bedrooms, a situation Kay tries to rectify as “Hope Springs” opens, to no avail. When she timidly knocks on the door to Arnold’s room, he can barely look up from his golf magazine to quizzically ask her what’s up.
In an effort to recharge the marriage, Kay arranges a visit to a famous therapist in Maine, a self-help author named Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). Most of “Hope Springs” transpires in Feld’s office, as the clinician tries to get to the root of the couple’s problems, encountering Kay’s prim evasions and Arnold’s granite-like resistance the whole way.
Written by Vanessa Taylor (who most recently worked on the HBO series “Game of Thrones”), “Hope Springs” is an extraordinary film precisely because it’s so ordinary. Any married couple that has crossed the 20- or even 10-year mark will understand the torpor that has set in to Kay and Arnold’s relationship, or the heartbreaking lack of contact that is covered up by daily rituals and roundabout avoidances. But rather than couch that pain in the usual plot devices or jokey bravado, Taylor looks at it squarely, with a minimum of fuss.
Which is not to say that “Hope Springs” isn’t funny, because it is -- mostly thanks to Jones, who plays Arnold with a pitch-perfect dose of bemusement, discomfort and long-simmering rage. Just look at the way he reflexively hangs his head when Feld brings up Kay’s orgasms, or his face after he confesses one of his cardinal erotic fantasies and Kay cries, “Carol with the corgis?” But if Jones provides most of the comedy in “Hope Springs,” he also embodies its most wrenching core, which comes down to the inability to identify and express the simplest human feelings.
Streep is just as alert, of course, although it’s possible to wish that her sweet, naive character had just one more layer to make her sharper and more complex. Streep’s most memorable moment occurs while the couple watches the French original of “Dinner For Schmucks,” which starred Carell in the American version. In “Hope Springs,” Carell delivers the most sensitive performance of his career, a blessedly un-mugging turn in which he resists all of his familiar mannerisms. In the frequent close-ups wherein Dr. Feld asks the tough questions (“Is this the best that you can do?”), the actor’s face is a steady, straightforward portrait of compassion, sincerity and presence that viewers may find jarring, having been conditioned for decades to anticipate a punctuating gag or convenient cutaway.
If a quibble is to be had with “Hope Springs,” it would be with the direction of David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”), whose touch at times lacks nimbleness and finesse. (A scene in a bar featuring Elisabeth Shue could have been better staged and paced.) What’s more, “Hope Springs” finds resolution in a too-swift, too-pat third act, which seems entirely out of keeping with its ethos of communicating honestly, no matter how difficult.
Then again, this is a movie fully aware that just showing up is often more important than even the most cathartic conversation. That “Hope Springs” has managed to show up here and now is cause for quiet, clear-eyed celebration.
Contains mature thematic content involving sexuality.