Synopsis: After thirty years of marriage, a middle-aged couple attends an intense, week-long counseling session to work on their relationship.
Stars: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Jean Smart, Elisabeth Shue
Director: David Frankel
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: In my review of the trailer for Hope Springs back in May I made the following statement about Streep: “The trailer for Hope Springs doesn’t lead me to believe we’ll see her walking the red carpet to pick up any sort of award.” One serving of humble pie, please? Yes, Hope Springs represents yet another Streep slam-dunk in an unexpectedly delightful film that is much different than the trailer and marketing materials would have you believe. This is no zany comedy or light as air affair…it’s a genuinely entertaining and thought-provoking film about love, marriage, and everything in between.
Streep and Jones play a couple celebrating their 31st anniversary with another joint gift they ‘gave’ each other. They sleep in separate rooms, they almost lead separate lives…but the bond of marriage is what makes it all ok in some way. It’s not as if we are watching a couple we know should get divorced (like the pair in The War of the Roses) but it’s evident that Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) have fallen into a rut and can’t get out. He’s an accountant and she works for a local Cold Water Creek store (one of several shameless product placement opportunities) but whatever spark they had isn’t there.
In a bookstore, Kay comes across a marriage self-help book penned by one Dr. Feld (Carrell) and soon she’s booked herself and Arnold for a $4,000 week-long therapy session in a cozy Maine hamlet. Maybe it’s because he’s an accountant or maybe it’s just his nature but Arnold gripes for the first half of the movie about money and budgets and how much everything costs. This could get annoying but we soon see that it’s pretty much the only thing the man has to complain about in an otherwise easy-going life. It’s the sessions that Kay and Arnold have with Dr. Feld where the true nature of the movie is revealed. We see that this is a couple with some deep problems that exist both within themselves and between each other. No outside force has creeped its way into the marriage and can be blamed for the rift – Kay and Arnold just gradually forgot what it was like to love one another. This sounds heavy and it is…but in the hands of the leads, director Frankel, and first-time screenwriter Vanessa Taylor a heartfelt humor emerges that is an absolute marvel to behold.
In between therapy sessions, we go along for the ride as Kay and Arnold explore parts of the town and each other. Mostly each other. There are some pretty frank situations the script puts Streep and Jones in and both actors meet the challenge head-on. Discussions of sexuality, longing, fantasy, and pain are brought forth in front of Dr. Feld and in private conversations we get to witness. What the movie does so well is to show that both Kay and Arnold are culpable as it relates to their current situation. While the movie seems to be from Kay’s perspective, we do sympathize with both when Kay can’t get Arnold to open up and Arnold can’t get Kay to recognize that she may have started the rift in the first place.
At this point in her career, Streep can get away with pretty much anything in my book. It’s more exciting when she hits it out of the park like she does here but I’m also much more willing to let it slide when she sidles up to a snoozy doozy like Lions for Lambs or Rendition. Where Streep takes this character is beautiful and that she does so without making Kay pathetic, whiny, or miserable is why Streep is our best actress alive today. It could have been easy for Kay to slide off the rails into a different kind of movie but Streep keeps her centered, open, and willing to hear what she maybe doesn’t want to.
She’s matched step-for-step by Jones in his best performance to date. Jones is the real revelation here and I for one would not have called it going into the screening. He’s fresh, funny, and is called upon to go the furthest emotionally. He starts the film so tightly wound that it affects even the crags on his hound dog face. As the movie goes along the eyes brighten, the smile returns, and a refreshed spirit emerges.
Carrell has made a career out of playing the hapless dork so his restrained performance here is to be applauded. Though I did sometimes get the feeling he was about to deliver a punch line of some sort it never came and he followed through with everything his character was laid out to do. In a sillier film his relationship with the couple may have taken a wrong turn but it’s all kept professional and honest.
Frankel reteams with Streep after guiding her to an Oscar nomination for The Devil Wears Prada. The results here are even better. While Streep unintentionally became the star of that show she’s top dog in Hope Springs and all the better for it. Even way-too-brief cameos by Mimi Rogers, Smart and Shue (who glows so much in her 50 second stint you’d swear the lights came up in the theater) are on the money and winning. Screenwriter Taylor comes from television which can be a bad sign but her first produced screenplay sets the bar high for her and her future projects. She’s crafted a human, believable, poignant, and discussion-worthy movie that was a pleasure to watch.
Finding things to nitpick in the movie were hard but I want to point out that Hope Springs felt a little too White People’s Fantasy for me. There is not a minority to be found anywhere in the film save for a one line exchange in a diner and a few background extras. In this day and age I’m pretty sure that black people live in Maine and go to nice places to eat. It’s not as shamefully white-washed as It’s Complicated (also starring Streep) but it’s something that I thought about during the film.
I want to make it clear that as heavy as I’ve made the movie out to be there is an abundance of richly-mined comedy here. The laughter the movie produces feels so good because it’s well earned and well executed. In one scene, Streep need only say “Huh?” to have the audience rolling.
What you have here is a complete experience for the adult movie-goer. I probably skew to the younger end of the target audience but even I took away a lot of things to think about and apply in my own life. Could Streep net another Oscar nom for her work here? It’s more than possible but here’s hoping that Jones gets equal amount of attention for his game performance. Don’t miss this one…it’s a keeper.