Genre: Romance/Comedy Director: David Frankel Cast: Meryl Streep, Steve Carell, Tommy Lee Jones, Elisabeth Shue, Jean Smart, Susan Misner, Marin Ireland, Ben Rappaport Runtime: 1 hr 40 mins Rating: NC-16 (Sexual References and Scenes of Intimacy) Released By: Cathay-Keris Films & InnoForm Media Official Website:
Opening Day: 13 September 2012
Synopsis: Many years of marriage have left Maeve (Streep) wanting to spice things up and reconnect with her husband. When she hears of a famed relationship guru (Carell) in the town of Great Hope Springs, she must persuade her skeptical husband (Jones) to get on a plane for an intense week of marriage and sex therapy. Getting there was hard enough...now shedding their bedroom hang ups, learning some new moves and rediscovering their youthful spark is when the real adventure begins.
How can a romance movie appeal to mainstream audiences and still attract art house audiences to the cinema in equal numbers? It’s a tricky terrain that studios have been trying to traipse across for the longest time. One side wants a fairy tale washed up in comedy or, as they say, a defy-all-odds tale in which the nerd somehow gets the hottest girl in town. The other demands a more honest portrait of relationships or, so the story goes, a realistic retelling of the joys and pains of love where emotions are laid bare to dry. Here at last is a movie scientifically flavoured to appeal to both tastes, ticking off all those factors dutifully. Hope Springs isn’t perfect by any means, but then few can claim to be as brilliant as it is.
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play Kay and Arnold, a couple whose 31 years of marriage has been sluiced down to a barren routine of silent meals and basic pleasantries. They don’t sleep in the same room or even touch each other anymore, and they give each other cable TV subscriptions on their anniversary. Arnold is slavishly devoted to nightly broadcasts of golf training videos, often dozing off in the armchair, but an embittered Kay is aware enough of the diminishing romance to book a month’s worth of intensive marriage counselling with famed therapist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). Can counselling really help the couple rediscover the spark in their marriage?
That’s the question that Hope Springs attempts to answer throughout a large part of its duration. Carell, an excellent method actor who has built a career out of playing batty characters over the past decade, pulls off the thorny task of playing the amenable Dr. Feld with a surprisingly controlled performance, remaining calm and sympathetic even as the couple becomes increasingly exasperated with each other. The husband – grumpy, stubborn and insecure – is, of course, played convincingly by Jones while Streep delivers a study in contrast with much aplomb, furnishing a clearly distraught Kay with glimpses of glamour through every hand gesture and facial expression.
Crucially, these outstanding achievements of the leads help Hope Springs become something more special than a dull monologue on the 101 tips of marriage; it’s a genuinely earnest portrayal of the scariness and loneliness of a life inside a failing marriage. Whether it’s an uneasy Kay running her fingers carefully across Arnold’s body for one of Dr. Feld’s ‘intimacy exercises’, or a blustering Arnold embarrassing Kay in a restaurant, or Dr. Feld conveying an unflinching wisdom in the presence of a flustered Kay, the leads handle their roles with a competence that allows the movie to fully exploit the raw emotions streaming between the characters. For this reason, it’s safer to avoid the movie if your marriage or relationship is on a short fuse.
That said, Hope Springs does attempt to break away from its allegorical visions for light-hearted moments once in a while. Dr. Feld sends Kay on a mission to purchase a self-help sex book from the local bookstore after Kay reveals her stress, resulting in a hilariously awkward stand-off between Kay and the bookstore owner when she asks him to help her find the book. A banana also gets to stand in for the male reproductive organ as Kay practices her moves. It’s all very basic stuff and unlikely to ruffle as many feathers as the more serious portions of the movie do. Which isn’t bad, but Hope Springs could certainly have done without the services of the comedy, especially if the aim of the movie is to maintain a more consistent and immersive tone.
With mainstream audiences suspiciously less enthusiastic about the experiences of a pair of senior citizens in a relationship than they are about the fiery sexual adventures of a pair of prepubescent teenagers, Hope Springs is like a jolt from the sky. With all three of its leads coming in at 50 years of age and above, asking for the movie’s success with mainstream audiences is hardly easy. Yet Hope Springs deserves notice not only because it’s actually one of the rare movies tailored for the young and the old, mainstream audiences and art house audiences, but also because its existence is already mystifying. The movie isn’t perfect, but I’ll take what I can get.
(The senior citizen version of romantic comedy is more poignant and funnier than it ever sounds on paper. It has its flaws, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this rare occasion!)