Thursday, August 9, 2012

"Hope Springs"

 4 / 5 

After 31 years, they live in the same house, they inhabit the same space, but they no longer sleep in the same bed, they hardly acknowledge each other, maybe they have even come to be a little afraid of each other.

She has reached her breaking point, but in an affable, gentle way; she could never bring herself to say such a thing.  Probably, she even shocks herself a little bit when she does something entirely uncharacteristic: She forces his hand and plunks down $4,000 on a weeklong couple's counseling session in Maine.  They live in Nebraska, and he'll be damned if he's going to go.

But this is it.  They've reached the end.

And so, here is a couple like others you may have encountered, at 31 years, at 10 years, at two years -- people who are surprised one day to discover they don't know what happened.

Hope Springs is mostly about this "intensive couples counseling," and it approaches the situation with a mature urgency mixed with humor that shines in the hands of the three lead actors.  Tommy Lee Jones is the husband, Arnold, a man who hasn't exactly lost sight of himself, he never knew there was a self there to see.  Meryl Streep is his wife, Kay, the kind of woman who you wouldn't be surprised to find is actually named "Kate," it was just too embarrassing to ever correct anyone.  They sit on opposite sides of the couch, but the gulf between them is wider than that, and to the great credit of its screenwriter, Vanessa Taylor, Hope Springs doesn't try to pretend their problems are any less serious than they are.

This is a marriage that is about to fall apart.  It's a marriage that has caused Kay, in particular, years of anguish and regret, which is no way to live.  Meryl Streep won the Oscar for her more technically difficult performance as Margaret Thatcher in last year's The Iron Lady, but her performance here is superior.  She could be any woman, she is familiar and comfortable in that way, but she is very much this specific woman: Desperate, sad, hopeful and, it turns out, not nearly as much a victim as she has thought. Quite the opposite -- Kay has been an active participant in the destruction of her marriage, and director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) wisely lets his camera linger over her finely wrinkled face, her confused, darting eyes, her embarrassed smile, watching as her expressions change, as she hears what's being said, as she considers things she had never considered before.

Keeping pace with her as an actor at every step, Tommy Lee Jones is resentful, defensive and exasperated -- everything Arnold would be.  He has provided for this woman and his family at every turn, he has never denied her anything she asked for, but, then again, she hasn't asked for much until now.

Jones and Streep would be worth watching on their own, but the real revelation of Hope Springs is Steve Carell as the therapist, Dr. Bernard Feld, whose self-help books and twee office in coastal Maine scream quackery as far as Arnold is concerned.  But he's the real deal, played by Carell: a man who wants to help his patients.  He asks hard questions in soft, non-threatening tones, he listens ... and he knows what his clients need to do and exactly why they're not going to do it.

Carell has never shown this intelligent, quiet side of himself; he is not the buffoon here, he is wise and kind and patient, and here's where the movie plays the biggest trick that puts it on a different level than other relationship comedies -- when Dr. Feld asks his questions of Kay and Arnold, every single person in the audience silently considers his own answers.

When was the last time you had sex?  Were you ever attracted to her?  Can you remember the last time you were in love with him?  When did the marriage stop working?  Did it ever work?

The therapy is infuriating and sometimes frightening.  Hope Springs slyly gets us wondering if maybe the esteemed Dr. Feld won't be successful this time. Arnold's hangdog reactions and Kay's last-ditch-effort approach leave the film with some real dramatic ground to explore.

At times, it gets a little too pat.  Is it really possible that, in 31 years, Arnold's only real fantasy has been a three-way with the owner of the neighborhood corgis?  Or that Kay has had no fantasy life at all?  She's charmingly embarrassed by the question, the reaction gets a great laugh, but maybe she's hiding a little more than she lets on.  The possibility is there in Streep's mischievous looks.

There are some scenes set in an EconoLodge, a couple of scenes at other locations in the little Maine city, others in an upscale boutique hotel and restaurant, but most of Hope Springs takes place there in Dr. Feld's quiet, neatly appointed office with just the three actors.  They captivate.  Streep, Jones and Carell let us see how this couple, whose divide seemed to be uncrossable, slowly begins to trust each other, to learn that there is another, with his or her own thoughts, dreams, wants, needs.  No, neither had ever really taken the time to think about that before, maybe never in 31 years.

But will it be enough?  Hope Springs doesn't shy away from trying to answer that by showing us Kay and Arnold after they return home.  The answer it gives is as simultaneously sunny, uncertain and contradictory as the movie itself.  This a happy movie about sadness, a love story about divorce.  It's an unapologetically "grown up" movie, and it's laudatory to see real adults actually anchoring a major studio film.  Thanks to Streep, Jones (watch carefully for the first time he smiles; it's contagious) and the equally good Carell, it's also a movie in which, throughout, those adults get to be adults.

Seeing that alone is rare enough these days.  To see intelligent, thoughtful adults starring in a movie that is so big-hearted, happy, considerate and well-crafted is almost unheard of.  This is a summertime treat for adult audiences, and the messages of love, of effort, of caring that are in its big, gigantic heart make Hope Springs the best choice for moviegoers of a certain age ... an age, the movie reminds us, it's really not so bad to be, and one that is filled with more possibility than we might recognize.

Viewed Aug. 8, 2012 -- ArcLight Hollywood

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