Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mastering The Measured Tones: Hope Springs

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Hope Springs is being sold as a comedy along the lines of Something's Got to Give or It's Complicated: a romantic comedy for the olds.

But I can tell you almost every funny moment in the movie can be seen in the two-and-half-minute trailer. The rest of the film is a surprisingly serious and quiet look at a troubled marriage, and the therapy sessions that will either save it, or help end it.

The screenplay, by Vanessa Taylor, was listed on the "Black List"--a list of supposedly brilliant but unproduced screenplays--back in 2008, and the inclusion makes sense. The film, for the most part, avoids the obvious, and concentrates instead on the surprises introspection can bring.

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are Kay and Arnold Soames, a midwestern couple who have been married for 31 years. Their adult kids have moved out, their day-to-day life follows a predictable routine--breakfast, work, dinner, retirement to separate bedrooms, sleep--and Kay is visibly frustrated by their life together.

Arnold, on other hand, is content to continue living a life that doesn't include any unnecessary drama, while also providing him a lot of time to watch shows about golf on TV.

Seeking advice in the self-help section of their local Barnes & Noble, Kay comes across a book by a Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell), and soon uses some of her own money to pay for a week of intensive couples counseling with the doctor, in Maine. And after much grouching from Arnold, ("That could have been a new roof!"), he agrees to come along.

It's in the counseling session scenes that the movie really avoids comedic cliches. I kept expecting the wacky reveal that Dr. Feld is an obvious quack, or that he goes home to a haranguing wife, or a lonely bachelor pad. But those scenes never come. Instead, Carrell plays Dr. Feld completely straight, mastering the measured tones of a counselor who's seen marriages like this before, and knows how to deal with them.

Of course, it goes without saying that Meryl Streep is terrific, and in this role she's able to demonstrate, once again, that she's as good at comedy as she is at drama. She can garner a laugh by just looking at herself bewilderingly in a mirror, and tears when reacting to the possibility that her husband might not be attracted to her any more.

Tommy Lee Jones's Arnold is a bit less developed, and for most of the movie he's pure grump. But eventually when Arnold starts to realize what's really at stake, Jones is able to break out of the grump mold a bit, and show some convincing vulnerability.

And I have to commend director David Frankel for not shying away from the more...intimate aspects of the story. This is a movie about intimacy, so sex plays a big part in that. Arnold and Kay are an aging couple who haven't had sex in years, so obviously, many of their post-therapy session "exercises" involve their sexuality.

Sure, some of their sexual moments are played for laughs. But the majority of the time, the sex is serious, because it's serious to the characters involved.

So, yeah, if the idea of watching people in their 60's in bed together fills you with squeamish dread, you might want to stay away.

But I have to say that, ultimately, Hope Springs really surprised me. I'd never have thought I'd actually get enjoyment from--let alone respect--a movie that features Meryl Streep giving Tommy Lee Jones a blow-job.

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