Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Movie review: Hope Springs
Hope may spring eternal, but for most of this film, it's non-existent.
Hope Springs is one of those double entrendre-ish titles that serves as both a place setting – in this case, the fictional Maine town of Great Hope Springs – and as a setting of the mood for the film, evoking the classic phrase “hope springs eternal.”
As used in the film world, though, it also serves as a red flag of sorts, bringing to mind the sort of film where the main character(s) travels to/gets waylaid in a small town that’s full of people who, using only their folksy charms, get our protagonist(s) to see the error of their ways. The DNA of that type of film is evident in Hope Springs, in which Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) go to the titular town in order to visit with Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell) for some intensive marriage counseling soon after their 31st anniversary.
However, the end result of the film lies somewhere between Doc Hollywood and In Treatment. It’s almost as if the filmmakers, including director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me) and first-time screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, had envisioned a broad comedy, only to change their minds halfway through and go more for relationship drama.
As presented, the marriage of Kay and Arnold sure isn’t anything to laugh about. The two of them aren’t just in a rut – they’re in the Grand Canyon. They sleep in separate bedrooms, they barely touch one another, and their daily interactions consist of little more than her making him eggs and bacon every morning before he heads off to work. The bulk of the film has them sitting on Dr. Feld’s couch, hashing out long dormant issues that often make both them and the audience uncomfortable, including a big focus on their sexual history.
But the movie also has multiple short scenes that aim for comedy and seem to indicate a much different direction the film could have taken. Elisabeth Shue plays a bartender who Streep pours her heart out to, and who is then never seen again. Mimi Rogers pops up for a one-joke scene. Jean Smart gets to play Streep’s best friend/co-worker for all of two sequences. Their roles add exactly nothing to the film, so it’s surprising to see them in the finished product -- actors like that aren’t usually hired to be given such short shrift.
It’s a tad jarring to see Streep, who’s capable of projecting great strength, playing such a relatively weak-willed character. She does her best with the material, and since she’s been nominated for 17 Oscars, that’s much more than it deserved. Jones plays the curmudgeon to a tee, which is what the role called for, but one also wishes for a little more depth. Carell gets to play a rarity for him, the straight man. He gives a solid, earnest performance where comedy only enters the equation when Dr. Feld’s probing questions elicit embarrassment from Kay and Arnold.
Much like the 2006 Jennifer Aniston/Vince Vaughn film The Break-Up, Hope Springs is more excruciating drama than comedy. It’ll have any couple, married or not, reevaluating their relationship to make sure they don’t fall into the same traps. Whether that makes for an entertaining night at the movies is up for debate. Hope may spring eternal, but for most of this film, it's non-existent.
For showtimes for Hope Springs, click here.