Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hope Springs ★★★½

A Healthy Blend of Old and New

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

In the current cinema landscape we are exhausted from dreadful romantic comedies. It seems like every month we can expect another lazy, half-hearted tale. We also expect the two leads to get younger and less experienced with each new release. So when something unexpected comes along it's truly refreshing. In this case I'm referring to Hope Springs, a new film with an inverse relationship to the romantic comedy of today, having two seasoned professionals (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) in the lead roles and giving us a movie that's actually good.

Streep and Jones play Kay and Arnold, an elderly couple who sleep in separate bedrooms, hardly speak about anything of substance and, despite living in the same home, don't seem to even know one another anymore. Kay, distraught and tired of feeling so alone with the man that she loves, takes it upon herself to buy a trip to Maine and undergo a week-long marriage counseling course with the renowned Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell). When they arrive, it's obvious that Arnold has some deep seeded emotional problems and that Kay may have been more neglectful than we've been led to believe.

It's a simple plot, but one that asks the question too few films dare to these days: Is it possible for long-term couples to remain in love with one another? This question was the very basis for writing the script, as stated by the film's writer, Vanessa Taylor, in a recent article in The New York Times. This point exemplifies the underrated talent in the world of writers currently working in Hollywood. It's a great script, written by someone much younger than the characters she's writing for, with a lot of heart and an emotional punch that works beautifully. The characters that Taylor has created are exceptional and the casting could not have been better.

It's been awhile since I have seen Jones do any role that illustrates his talent, especially after his tired performance in Men in Black 3. But here we see a man who was hurt many years ago and, for reasons that are eventually revealed, has stopped trying to do nice things for his wife. He's heartbroken, regretful of the decisions he's made but also harboring a lot of bad feelings toward Kay. If the film has any faults, it's that the sessions, while they are a good portion of the movie, come only in small chunks and in some ways feel afraid to get to the root of Arnold's anger. There's a lot more to be explored with this character and I wish the film had gone there.

These scenes with the three leads are so great to watch, which is a testament to the actors' performances. Carell is terrific as Dr. Feld. He never plays any of his lines for comedy and he very much gives each scene over to Streep and Jones, playing off of what they do and say perfectly. It's not just the fact that Carell plays a therapist well; it's that I believe he is one. In addition, Streep, as always, proves that there's no role in the world that she could ever be lousy in. In many ways Kay has been the victim of years of bullying (however unintended) from Arnold and we root for her because she's learned to stand up for herself. We're invested in her story because despite the distance between her and Arnold, she's not ready to call it quits just yet.

More and more I see older crowds at the theatre despite the increasing number of movies aimed at younger audiences each year. Hope Springs is a film that breaks the mold, a bit of counter-programming in a summer full of big blockbusters. It's a film that recognizes the importance of the older crowd but also appeals to audiences in any age group. It's a film that showcases great writing and great character work, which, as sad as it is to say, is something too many movies lack these days. Thus, the film's title works two-fold: It illustrates not only the message of the film, but also how I feel about the future of romantic comedies.

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