I recently made a pact with myself to see everything Meryl Streep is in. So I didn’t hesitate to rush out and see the new film she stars in with Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carrell. Hope Springs is the kind of film I usually like, its main character isn’t animated, a superhero, a talking dog, international spy, bounty hunter or cyborg. Even more interesting and rebellious is that the film is not only about real people but about real people over fifty.
Streep doesn’t disappoint. Although this performance isn’t likely to garner a 18th Oscar nomination, she is a repressed sixtyish Midwestern housewife from the very first frame of the movie. This seems especially astonishing as she just won her third Oscar for playing the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher. Much of her characterization comes from her body language. When her character breaks down and cries, it isn’t an elaborate actressy over-the-top cry, it is more like tears of someone who hasn’t cried in a very long time, literally not knowing what is happening.
Tommy Lee Jones as her curmudgeon husband of thirty year is equally deft in his performance. Tommy Lee Jones is an expert of subtext and underplaying. As repressed as Streep’s Kay is, Jones’ portrayal of Arnold is a man of deeply buried feelings. Arnold is a cheapskate, successful accountant, but other than that he is sketchy as written. Whereas Kay’s character is flushed out and it’s clear what she wants, we are never quite sure what Jones’ character wants or why he is so stubborn and uncooperative.
Most of the film unfolds in marriage counseling sessions at a Maine seaside resort where Kay and Arnold spend a week in intensive couples’ therapy, with a famed counselor played by the always good Steve Carrell. Hope Springs is very talky. Given the set-up, this isn’t surprising. Though the “sessions” are engaging, there is nothing to counteract the overt staginess of these scenes. David Frankel, who also directed The Devil Wears Prada doesn’t take advantage of the Maine locations at all. There isn’t anything particularly cinematic about this film, especially the completely obvious and unnecessary pop music soundtrack that telegraphs every emotion the actors are feeling. This includes a clumsy use of Annie Lennox’s “WHY.” Also there are too many extreme close-ups, including those of Steve Carrell’s character posing questions or reacting to an answer from the couple.
There are tremendous moments of honesty in Hope Springs and the diligence with which its main subject matter is tackled (loss of intimacy and sex in a long marriage) is both admirable and worthy, but Hope Springs really isn’t a comedy. The trailer clips that show the parsimonious Arnold complaining about an overpriced breakfast make him seem playful and fun. Not the case in the film, where he just seems like a humorless jerk most of the time. Kay should be looking for a divorce attorney and not a marriage counselor.
Most of the problems lie in the screenplay, by Vanessa Taylor Although she tries desperately to avoid tricks in plotting and false characterization, the movie has no layers, not enough character specificity and certainly not enough character motivation for Arnold. When Arnold finally makes his move, you are left thinking, huh? Why now? Oh it is the end of the movie. Perhaps the movie would have benefitted from more supporting characters, though that would involve more plotting, something Taylor is skittish about.
Still, if you have been married a long time, this film will have tremendous resonance and it is great to see a film that concerns itself with characters over 55 who live in Omaha, not Los Angeles or New York. The fact that it is about their sex life only makes it bolder.