Director David Frankel has carved out a niche delivering safe, middlebrow, vaguely poignant films that cater to an undernourished segment of the moviegoing population: people over 50. His second collaboration with Meryl Streep, Hope Springs, is exactly what you expect in both good and bad ways.
Streep stars as Kay, a housewife whose marriage to taciturn, grumpy tax specialist Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) has grown stale and passionless after several decades -- they don’t even sleep in the same bed anymore. In an attempt to salvage their relationship, Kay books a weeklong intensive-therapy session with Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), an expert counselor who practices in the small New England burg that gives the film its title. Feld gets the twosome to open up, practice intimacy exercises, and share their feelings with each other, but Arnold finds it hard to overcome decades of resentment, disappointment, and inertia.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this debut feature script from Vanessa Taylor plays very much like an episode of the short-lived HBO couples-in-therapy series Tell Me You Love Me: Taylor wrote two of the ten installments in the series’ brief history. The only difference is that this story aims directly at AARP members.
There’s rich territory here for a rueful comedy or a heartbreaking drama, and it’s hard to conceive of a better cast for this story. Streep and Jones are spectacular in the therapy sessions -- you can see the truth fight up through their multiple layers of fear and pain. Watch what Streep does with her hands when Kay is fearful of hearing something painful, and savor how Jones slowly sheds Arnold’s gruff exterior without abandoning the character’s essential nature. Carell offers flawless support as the patient, caring counselor. There aren’t many comedic actors who are so comfortable letting other performers have all the big moments -- most would mug for the camera in order to get a little attention. Carell, on the other hand, has no problem letting others take center stage, and that’s why he fits so well in this acting menage a trois: Feld is such an expert at his work that he understands the sessions are not about him at all. Carell makes sure the attention stays on the stars.
The actors are so good they overcome the merely functional direction. Frankel repeatedly makes sure we see exactly how close Kay and Arnold are sitting next to each other, and while that establishes the tone at the beginning of each encounter, he uses the shot so often that it becomes a heavy-handed symbol. There’s too much nuance in their relationship to reduce it so often to something so simple, yet simple is the perfect adjective to describe Frankel and Taylor’s approach to the material. That can have its charms -- this is certainly as straightforward a movie as you’re likely to find -- but what marriage is straightforward or simple? Real relationships, even the great ones, are messy. By refusing to delve deeper, the characters come off as two-dimensional symbols whom we can relate to only because we might have experienced the same dissatisfactions, rather than three-dimensional people whose neuroses and struggles make them singular and recognizable.
Thanks to the actors, the whole movie goes down smoothly. Streep and Jones are compulsively watchable -- we hang on every little movement and line reading because there’s little to admire but their craft. They were up for something much more challenging and memorable than what’s onscreen, but Frankel and Taylor, like so many stale marriages, get sucked into a tired routine. leave a comment --Perry Seibert