Judge Clark Douglas' marriage counselor spent the whole hour laughing maniacally.
Our review of Hope Springs (2009), published June 3rd, 2010, is also available.
A couple trying to reignite the spark.
"I hope you're happy."
Facts of the Case
Kay (Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men) have been married for 31 years. Their children are grown, their life is simple and their daily routine has become predictable. They've been sleeping in separate bedrooms for a few years now—not because of any marital rift, but because Arnold has a snoring problem that had kept Kay up at night. At long last, Kay has determined that their marriage needs a makeover. Somehow, she manages to persuade the reluctant Arnold to travel to Maine with her for a week of marriage counseling from the esteemed Dr. Feld (Steve Carell, Evan Almighty). Will the two be able to reignite the fading embers of their love life, or is the marriage counseling just a waste of time?
Hope Springs is probably better than you think it is. The ad campaign played up the goofy comedy of the film, and it's incredibly easy to imagine an entirely insufferable romantic comedy based on a similar premise (especially if you replace Carell's character with, say, Robin Williams or Billy Crystal). However, Hope Springs isn't a goofy, cutesy giggle-fest about the hilarity of two old people getting it on. It's a surprisingly serious-minded, thoughtful, occasionally painful movie about the challenges of maintaining a healthy marriage over the years. If director David Frankel and writer Vanessa Taylor didn't insist on gently undercutting their strongest points with needless comic relief and obvious soundtrack cues, the movie undoubtedly would have been something quite special.
There are so many little moments that Jones and Streep play so well. In one early scene, she determines to put on her nicest nightgown and slink into his bedroom for a little romance. "What do you need?" he asks, clueless to her real motivations.
"Well, I thought…you know," she hints warmly.
"Oh," Jones stammers, grimacing as he tries to formulate a reasonable excuse. "I, uh, I'm not feeling very well, I don't…no, it's probably not…"
"Okay. I'll just go back to my room," she says with obvious disappointment.
Together, the two leads create a weary, routine-filled marriage that feels thoroughly lived-in. He's quiet, private, hard-working and would be content to spend the rest of his days watching talk shows about golf. Meanwhile, she privately pines for the days when their marriage actually inspired her to feel something. He's frustrated and bewildered by the fact that she would be so discontented with their humble lifestyle; how can something so simple and peaceful be so intolerable to her? The arguments between the two on the subject are far more passionate than their efforts to romance each other, and the Dr. Phil-esque banalities offered by Dr. Feld don't go a terribly long way in persuading the pair to sort things out. Progress is made, but generally in a, "two steps forward, one step back" sort of way.
There are certainly moments in which the movies slips into conventional sitcom territory, such as a sequence in which Streep (who is either required to do a bit more comic mugging than Jones or is simply more willing to) comically raises her eyebrows at a banana while reading a book of sex tips. That's the sort of scene that occasionally appears in an effort to defuse the tension the rest of the film focuses on, as the movie seems cautious of allowing itself to become too squirm-inducing for couples who have found themselves facing similar challenges. Does one give the film credit for being better and braver than most mainstream romantic comedies, or does one chastise what could have been a companion piece to Scenes on a Marriage for compromising itself so shamelessly? Both, I suppose.
Ultimately, the film is worth seeing. Above all else, the performance of Tommy Lee Jones is yet another gem from an actor who has hit his stride in recent years. In some ways, the part is directly in Jones' comfort zone—he does taciturn and reserved as well as anybody in the movies—but the scenes in which he crawls out of his shell are almost wondrous given his hesitation to really open himself up onscreen or off. It's a little alarming when he smiles in delight given how infrequently that happens, though the alarm factor may also be due to the fact that Jones' "joyously in love" facial expression looks almost identical to the one he employed as Two-Face in Batman Forever. Even if Streep sometimes goes a little broad and Carell somehow never manages to find anything interesting to do with his vanilla role, Jones is absolutely convincing in every scene. It's a rich, detailed piece of work.
Hope Springs (Blu-ray) has received a superb 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that highlights the film's sleepy Maine location quite nicely. Though the staging of individual scenes can be a little bland visually, the level of detail throughout is excellent. You can see every little crease and line in the faces of Streep and Jones. Depth is quite strong throughout and blacks are impressively inky. I did notice a couple of brief shots that featured some light banding, but other than that the image is superb. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is perfectly satisfactory, with the overemployed pop tunes making the biggest impression. Dialogue is clean and the sound design is both minimalist and well-distributed. Supplements include an audio commentary with Frankel, a handful of engaging but relatively insubstantial featurettes ("An Intimate Look at Making Hope Springs," "An Expert's Guide to Everlasting Passion," "The Doctor is In: Steve Carell on Dr. Feld," "Inside the Perfect Movie Marriage: Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones" and "The Passionate Performer"), some alternate takes on multiple scenes, a gag reel and a digital copy.
Hope Springs joins 2012's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as a mostly-successful film that thoughtfully examine the romantic challenges faced by the elderly. It doesn't live up to its considerable potential, but it's several notches above the average mainstream rom-com. Recommended.
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