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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Review: Hope Springs (2012)

* * *

Director: David Frankel
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell

There are a few things which, as a rule, Hollywood movies don't do. One is to centre a narrative on older characters and another is to deal frankly with issues of sex. Hope Springs does both and, while it isn't in any way a "risky" or groundbreaking movie, there is a kind of unflinching honesty to it that is rarely found in mainstream fare. It's far from perfect (and maybe wraps things up just a touch too easily) but there is a lot of value to the piece, including but not limited to the great performances by its two leads.

As Hope Springs opens, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) are celebrating their 30th anniversary. While Arnold is content with the status quo, Kay is desperate to repair the marriage, which has steadily been decaying for some time. When Kay broaches the subject of couple's counseling Arnold is dismissive but, when she forces his hand, he reluctantly agrees to go with her to a week long retreat in Maine where they enter into therapy with Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell). Things get off to a rough start when Arnold makes his resentment and resistance to the counselling process all too clear, but as it becomes apparent to him that Kay has been in a lot of pain for several years over the state of their marriage, he begins to open up somewhat to the process.

The issue of sex quickly becomes the centrepiece of the sessions with Dr. Feld. Kay and Arnold haven't had sex for years and, in fact, don't even sleep in the same bedroom anymore. Their frank, often uncomfortable, discussions with Dr. Feld reveal that the demands of establishing a household and raising their children distracted from a lack of sexual compatibility and inability to communicate with each other about their needs and desires. Now that their children have grown and left, and they're comfortably established in their upper middle class milieu, their marriage has become defined by what's missing from it, and while Arnold is able to cope with that loneliness by ignoring it, it has become unbearable for Kay. She confesses to Arnold at one point that for most of their lives together, it felt like they were working towards something but now it feels like there's nothing left to look forward to; all that's left is the decline. Dr. Feld makes some suggestions to help them reconnect with each other, but Kay and Arnold are forced to confront the possibility that the sexual attraction (particularly Arnold's for Kay) may simply no longer be there, and try to answer the question of what's to become of their marriage if that's the case.

One of the most noteworthy things about Hope Springs is how seriously it takes its characters' problems. It gets some comedic mileage out of the situation, but it ultimately leans much more heavily towards drama and doesn't shy away from the most painful aspects of Kay and Arnold's relationship. Although the ending lets it down just a little bit, for the most part the film doesn't pretend that there's any quick fix to Kay and Arnold's problems - when they return from the therapy retreat, the question of whether they will remain together or split up is still very much in play. If anything, they are in some respects even more disillusioned than they were when they left. It's kind of brutal - particularly for a movie that was marketed as a comedy - but it does feel honest.

While Carell doesn't really get enough to do to really make much of an impression (I imagine that the draw for him was the opportunity to work with his co-stars), Jones and Streep are both fantastic. Jones is an actor that you don't typically picture in this type of role, which is perhaps precisely why it works. Arnold is a character defined, in large part, by his discomfort - he knows that there are problems in his marriage, but that doesn't mean he wants to talk about it. His gruffness is a good balance, storywise, to the sweetness and unassuming qualities of Streep's character and the relationship has a believable and lived-in quality to it. As for Streep, she delivers one of her finest performances of the last decade. A lot of people seem to be kind of over her as an actress due in large part to the fact that she gets nominated for an Oscar seemingly every other year (something which I suspect will stop now that she's won her third), often for performances that are seen as inherently "baity." This performance, free of the affectations that seem to annoy many (the accent of Doubt, the Anna Wintour stylings of The Devil Wears Prada, the combo of accent and styling in The Iron Lady) are absent, leaving a breathtakingly pure performance of a perfectly ordinary woman with perfectly ordinary problems which is nevertheless compelling. And that's Hope Springs in a nutshell: a compelling, if not groundbreaking, drama about characters who are adults and act like adults. How refreshing is that?

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