When a movie stars Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell, you expect to plunk your money down and enjoy the company of actors you can rely on. On that count, Hope Springs gets the job done. It gives us what we want, delivers it in an orderly and economical fashion, and closes things out with a cherry on top.
Of course, this dramedy is a rather plain vanilla sundae–hold the nuts–but I have a sweet tooth and it managed to make me feel real good by the end, even if it isn’t saying anything new or taking any chances.
In a sharp contrast from her recent third Oscar win playing Margaret Thatcher, Streep hangs up the dress suits for middle-American, mall-friendly Coldwater Creek women’s fashions and a domesticated character in Kay, who is more of an ‘Ironing Lady’. The kids live on their own now, but Kay still runs the house like it’s a job, doting on her inattentive husband Arnold. They’ve been married 33 years, live a comfortable life in Omaha, and are stuck in a routine that is making Kay’s heart sink evermore because her husband appears to have no self-awareness of it.
Every morning she prepares his bacon and eggs and coffee, he buries himself in his paper, finishes, and then rushes off to work often without so much as an acknowledgment, let alone a peck on the cheek. Streep’s face is all we’re paying attention to in these early scenes, a submissive and passive-aggressive study on what goes without saying: here is a comforting and pretty sixtysomething woman who desires her husband, and there he goes, practically sleepwalking past her on his way out the door.
At night, we watch things play out much the same way, as Kay fixes dinner and Arnold conks out in front of the Golf Channel before they retire to separate bedrooms. How long, we wonder, has that been going on? And why? Kay gathers some courage and takes action. She buys two tickets to a week-long intensive couples therapy session way out in Maine, with the hope that its renowned marriage expert in Dr. Feld will do the trick.
Arnold is a hard man. Less of an undiscovered country than he is undiscoverable. He’s a creature of habit, has brought home the bacon and provided for his family, is not abusive. Yet he’s a difficult one to know. Old-fashioned in the stoic sense, he’s a man with guarded emotions who comes from a place and time that says it’s weak to show vulnerability or real feeling.
So the idea of travelling cross-country to sit around examining himself is understandably off-putting to him. In his early scenes, we see Tommy Lee Jones doing what we know he does best: playing a strong, no-nonsense, reserved type, easily irritated by sentimentality. It is a delightful surprise then that by the end, his performance reveals colours in his acting that we haven’t seen before. He’s vulnerable, has hurts and regrets, and in one terrific late scene, allows himself to reveal a shaky self-confidence that is rather touching to behold.
Steve Carell is the straight man here as Dr. Feld, saying all the right things that ring familiar to us from other TV and movie therapists, though he hits all of those notes with easy charm. It’s perfect that he and Kay have the smell of baked bread all over them while Arnold is a cold, limp piece of asparagus from the outset. In the peaceful, idyllic town of Hope Springs, Dr. Feld leads them in an examination of their marriage that, just like their positions on the sofa before him, show them getting closer at times, and then pulling away other times. They have breakthroughs and setbacks, uncomfortable silences and moments of real intimacy. Well, not too much silence, as noted from a soundtrack filled with adult-contemporary fare like Annie Lennox‘s “Why”, that work like a slice of cheddar on hot apple pie.
Hope Springs finds Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel reuniting with Streep once again, and I liked this picture even more, but to my surprise it’s Jones who steals the show. The screenplay, marking the feature film debut of TV writer Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones, Everwood) keeps things simple and works to assure us in much the same way that Nora Ephron did as a filmmaker, giving us satisfying, light dramedy featuring A-list talent.
Hope Springs is a neat little respite this summer from men in tights and stuff getting blown up real good.
*** (out of 4)