Hope Springs (United States, 2012)

August 08, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hope Springs Poster

Hope Springs has the unusual distinction of providing a sample of what an Ingmar Bergman movie might be like if made for mass American consumption. The production leavens the painful psychological introspection that defined the Swedish director's best films with a more palatable lightness of tone. Hope Springs offers a serious look at the problems of intimacy that creep into many long-term relationships but does so with a comedic edge. Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) wisely allows his actors to carry the production and they do so in fine fashion, treading the line between drama and comedy and avoiding the extremes of the depressing melodrama and the sit-com.

This is essentially a two-character story focusing on a married couple of 31 years. There's nothing extraordinary about sixtysomethings Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), who live the kind of lives that are commonplace among spouses of their generation. Arnold awakens each morning, has his breakfast (fixed for him by Kay) while reading his paper, goes to work, comes home and eats dinner, falls asleep in front of the TV, then goes to bed. He and Kay have separate bedrooms and, on an occasion when she attempts a clumsy seduction, he deflects her by claiming not to feel well. They are comfortable but do not interact in a meaningful manner, treating each other almost like pieces of too-familiar furniture. Although Arnold sees nothing wrong with that, Kay is becoming increasingly aware of a gnawing lack of fulfillment. So, in an attempt to save her marriage, she enrolls in a one-on-one workshop with celebrity counselor Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell) in a small town in Maine. Arnold agrees to go only after considerable cajoling and it is obvious that, from the beginning, he considers it to be a waste of time and money.

The bulk of the film concentrates on what happens during the intense week of therapy, both in the sessions with Dr. Feld and afterwards, when Kay and Arnold perform homework lessons that include things like holding one another and taking baby steps toward sexual reconnection. Some of these scenes are uncomfortable and there's a real sense of growth in the characters that can be attributed as much to the screenplay by Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones) as to the performances of Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. In the Ingmar Bergman version of this story, these two would ultimately fail to reconnect and one or both of them would commit suicide. This being a movie aimed at multiplex audiences, it's reasonable to expect a more hopeful denouement. The movie is entitled Hope Springs for reasons beyond that being the locale where it transpires.

There's an everyman quality to these characters. They could be our parents, our grandparents, our neighbors, or ourselves. The problems in their marriage are commonplace. They are not struggling with the death of a child, an attempt to get past an affair, or some other major marital roadblock. They simply have grown apart. Sex has become a lost element of their lives. Kay has never had a sexual fantasy and Arnold is embarrassed to confess his. They are frightened of intimacy with one another. When Dr. Feld encourages honesty about sex, both find it almost impossible to open up. And, as with any path of discovery, there are setbacks and failures. All along, Kay has understood there's a problem with their marriage. By the end, Arnold recognizes it as well. Hope Springs' final act is a little too clean and upbeat.

One significant drawback is the music. Not only is Theodore Shapiro's score intrusive but Frankel has included too may "soft rock" songs. Some movies do better with limited music, and this is one of them. Silence allows the viewer to better absorb the emotional impact of what's transpiring; music serves as a distraction and sometimes directs (or misdirects) the way a viewer reacts to a scene. Hope Springs' soundtrack undercuts some of its most powerful moments; I like Annie Lennox's "Why" but its use in the film is unnecessary, bordering on detrimental.

For film goers who savor actors at the top of their craft, Hope Springs is offers a banquet. Streep and Jones, perfectly paired, are invested in this story. Streep's performance here outpaces her Oscar-winning Margaret Thatcher imitation in The Iron Lady and Jones' work reminds us that there's much more than the bored fa├žade he exhibited in Men in Black III (where, more than half the time, his role was played by Josh Brolin). Together and apart, these two make Kay and Arnold living, breathing individuals - a necessary quality for a character study of this nature. Steve Carrell doesn't have a well-rounded character, but he's an effective catalyst, which is the intention. Dr. Feld in on hand to stimulate interaction between Kay and Arnold, not to participate in it. We never see him outside the therapy room and know nothing about him other than that he's a famous marriage counselor.

Marketing may be Hope Springs' greatest foe because the movie is being advertised as something it is not. Based on the trailers, one might easily assume this is the latest Nancy Meyers comedy (with Jones in the Jack Nicholson role and Streep replacing Diane Keaton). The advertising focuses on the comedy, which is a secondary element in the film, and tricks viewers into expecting something less substantial than what is offered. Tonally, Hope Springs is closer to Alexander Payne than Meyers although Frankel does his best to keep things from turning too dark. The PG-13 rating is odd. If any movie could be said to be for adults, this is it, yet the script soft-peddles and euphemizes issues as if desirous of capturing a teen audience. This isn't targeted for young viewers; it is first and foremost an acting clinic and secondly a thoughtful psychological deconstruction of a marriage. It may be slow and bewildering to those who typically venture out to summer films but, for those in the target demographic, it provides a celebration of traditional cinematic qualities.

Hope Springs (United States, 2012)

Director: David Frankel
Cast: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carrell
Screenplay: Vanessa Taylor
Cinematography: Florian Ballhaus
Music: Theodore Shapiro
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2012-08-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1