Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Review of HOPE SPRINGS (2012)

- Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving sexuality.
- Starring Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell
- Written by Vanessa Taylor
- Directed by David Frankel
- Running time: 1hr 39min.

Usually I watch every trailer I can before I see a movie.  Not because I want to be spoiled, but I just love the anticipation of a film (good or bad). It drives my love for films.  Sometimes the anticipation can even be better than the actual movie.  But for HOPE SPRINGS, I didn't see anything.  Not sure exactly why, I just never got around to clicking on any of the trailers.  I didn't even really know anything about the movie at all, except that Meryl Streep was in it.

Streep stars as Kay, a middle aged housewife who has been married to her husband Arnold for 30 years.  They have a very routine marriage.  They sleep in separate beds, wake up together, eat breakfast while they Arnold read the paper, Arnold goes to work, comes home, they eat dinner and then Arnold falls asleep while watching golf shows on TV.  It's been this way for quite some time now and Kay wants something more.  She wants passion back in her life.  She hears about a marriage counselor named Dr. Feld (Carell) who offers a week long session in Maine to fix marriages.  Kay signs her and her husband up.  Of course Arnold refuses to go, but seeing how much Kay wants this, he reluctantly goes, complaining the whole way there.  During the sessions, Kay and Arnold discover that their problems stem with intimacy issues, so Dr. Feld tries to make them more open with each other by giving them various exercises (including sexual activities).  But will the stubborn Arnold open up, and is the main problem just his fault?

It almost starts off like a typical Nancy Meyer film (IT'S COMPLICATED, SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE), which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  It has a nice lighthearted feel going for it, but then when the sessions start I was pleasantly surprised by how much dramatic weight presented itself.  This is a pretty grown up movie about grown ups.  There aren't any cheap sex gags (though there are some clever ones).  Instead we get to see characters facing uncomfortable and honest sexual problems in realistic ways.  After seeing countless teen sex comedies, this mature approach was very refreshing.  These intimacy problems are things couples deal with every day, and not just old couples.

This movie would only be half as good as it was if the 2 leads weren't in this.  Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are just wonderful!  For a change, Streep is playing a bit of a frumpy housewife who keeps her feelings bottled up inside her.  She handles the dramatic moments very well, and is even terrific during some comedic moments (there's a pretty funny oral sex scene.  Yes, even in a PG13 movie).  It's nice to see Tommy Lee Jones play something other than a hard-nosed cop, a disgruntled military official or a lawyer.  He's an average, blue collar American who is afraid to express himself.  It's one of my favorite performances of the year. During the first half, when he's complaining about how much he hates the marriage sessions, he's a hoot.  It's not a showy performance either.  He incorporates several subtle touches that made me laugh out loud quite often, like when Kay is talking about their lack of a sex life to Dr. Feld, he vigorously plays with a crease in his pants.  It's little touches like this (as well as several amusing facial expressions) that make his performance and the movie rise above other titles from the same genre.  These two actors are so strong that it's easy to forget about Steve Carell, who thankfully doesn't try to upstage them.  He is simply there as a mediator for the 2 characters.  No ad-libbing, which is what I was expecting.  He does a solid job here.

I have often compared director David Frankel to TV directors.  No style.  Just standard generic work (MARLEY & ME, THE BIG YEAR).  But here he lets the actors do their thing by just leaving the camera on.  He doesn't try for any cute shots or montages.  This is essentially an actor's movie and Frankel understands that.  The script by Vanessa Taylor is mature, honest and smart.  There are so many movies that treat older couples in a juvenile manner, but that's not the case here, thank goodness.  My only real problem is that the music is quite distracting.  There were many serious moments that have either an over-sentimental score or schmaltzy songs dominating the soundtrack.  It sucks cause it takes you out of the moment emotionally.  The worst case is when Jones is thinking about something he did wrong and Annie Lennox's song "Why" is blasting loudly.  It feels too manipulative, which is too bad because most of the movie has a more honest feel.  I also thought it was a bit too short, because the resolution comes too soon.  I think there needed to be more of a lead up to it in order for the ending to be believable.

But, overall, it's a pretty darn good movie.  It's a very good take on how older couples deal with intimacy issues after several years of marriage.  The biggest reason to see this is for the performances of the always reliable Streep, and especially the great work from Tommy Lee Jones.  People who like stories about real people dealing with real problems should find enough to like (and possibly relate to) here.  It's not just a women's picture as Jones' character has just as much screen time as Streep.  This is just as much a guy's movie as it is a woman's.  I think the 2 perspectives are pretty equal.  This film is a terrific and welcome break from the loud and noisy films of the typical summer blockbuster.

*** (out of ****)

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