REVIEW: Hope Springs Is Raw, Moving, And Horribly Forced, But Redeemed By Streep And Jones' Bravura Performances
Hope Springs is not what it says on the package. The trailer is all comedy and quirk, but the movie is not.
Let’s face it though, the premise is a hard sell. Films about old people are anathema to mainstream Hollywood. Since the success of Cocoon — which featured its over-50 cast rejuvenated by a swimming pool containing alien pods — movies featuring actors of a certain age are rare, and despite the success of Space Cowboys, The Straight Story and Meryl Streep's last Oscar-winning vehicle, The Iron Lady, it is almost impossible to get a film made unless someone under 20 is pivotal to the script.
Hope Springs is even more thorny because it is about a particularly unattractive aspect of marriage: Not the falling in love and getting married aspect, or the falling out and getting divorced phase, but rather, the living inside of an unhappy marriage angle. Surely this has to be pretty special to sustain our interest.
Despite having the odds stacked against it, Hope Springs is, in parts, raw, moving, brave, audacious and painful thanks to the combined ability of Streep and Jones to commit fully to unhappy suburban mediocrity. Had the movie been made with two different lead actors, I surely believe the movie would have been unwatchable.
Streep and Jones play Kay and Arnold, who, after 31 years of marriage, are mired in a relationship that is a form of living death. He is sutured to Golf Tips magazine and slavishly devoted to daily rituals. She follows him around with plates of food like a nurse. They sleep in separate rooms. There is no physical contact between them. They don’t even speak to each other anymore. For their wedding anniversary, they buy each other cable TV.
While Arnold is grumpily in denial about the state of his marriage, Kay has the self-awareness to know she is unhappy. She browses Barnes & Noble, finds a book called You Can Have The Marriage You Want and books a week’s worth of intensive marital counseling in Maine with the author Dr Feld (a deadly serious Steve Carell). She then gets on the plane alone and waits to see if her husband will fill the seat beside her.
Begrudgingly, Arnold joins his wife, and, unleashing his inner curmudgeon, begins to bitterly complain about the cost of everything related to their therapeutic sojourn.
It is in the sessions with Dr Feld that the going really gets tough. From here on in, Hope Springs is like ripping off a series of well-stuck Band-Aids. The pain is palpable as Kay and Arnold discuss the loss of intimacy and their sex life and admit to the loneliness and anger that each suffers.
As you might expect, the couple do attempt to resurrect their sex life, but watching this was about as comfortable as contemplating my parents getting it on. I was not alone either: these scenes provoked much nervous laughter at the screening I saw - and yet, the discomfort generated had much to do with the authentic performances that both actors give.
Streep, as ever, is extraordinary. Her conviction to character makes Kay frumpy, vulnerable and not particularly bright. She is an ordinary woman without a whiff of glamour, and Streep conveys this with every hand gesture and facial expression. It is Jones' performance that is the real revelation, however. His character has the furthest distance to travel and watching him do this is at the core of this film's heart — and its heartbreak.
In contrast to the nuanced and powerful work of these two titans, Hope Springs suffers from simplistic framework and some heavy-handed signposting. The soundtrack desperately tries to lift us up where we belong. There are endless shots of watches and clocks — presumably to emphasize the passing or running-out of time.
The aesthetic is also very obvious. The suburban drab shifts visually as soon as the couple reach Maine. Dr. Feld's office floods with sunlight the minute the pair of them have a relationship breakthrough. Then again director David Frankel is not renowned for his subtlety. The representation of the all-American family in Marley and Me made me want to throw myself under a bus.
Which leaves us where, exactly? Hope Springs does authentically depict how scary and lonely it is to be inside a failing marriage, and anyone who has endured or witnessed the break-up of a long-term relationship will feel the sting here. In many respects, it's a subject that deserves Hollywood's attention and ours as well. Lately, movie audiences have been inundated with younger couples on celluloid that can’t make it past six years (Celeste and Jesse Forever) or even six months (Ruby Sparks). The long run is relatively untapped territory and arguably much more interesting.
But Hope Springs does not keep its eye on the prize. The movie is an unsatisfying combination of touching and excruciating, and a large part of the problem stems from Frankel's attempt to hammer such serious and sensitive subject matter into a half-hearted comedy.
Despite Streep and Jones' honest, moving performances, the movie's tone is horribly forced — so much so that by the time Annie Lennox's poignant "Why?" played on the soundtrack, I felt like wailing along with her.