Director: David Frankel
Rating PG-13 Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
Stars: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell
It's brave for a big Hollywood studio to finance a movie about middle-age people, played by middle-age actors. Braver still for the actors cast for such a project to be big, big names. And yet even braver that the subject of the film is the rarely talked about elephant in the room that is mid-life sexual intimacy between a long-together couple.
So it's a huge triumph in the eyes of those of us who believe that life doesn't stop at 50 — and that the problems and concerns of those of that age do matter — that Sony/Columbia Studios got behind the exquisitely funny, honestly realistic, poignant Hope Springs, skillfully written by Vanessa Taylor (previously a TV writer), directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), and starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.
Hope Springs tells the story of 60-somethings Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones), an Omaha couple who've been married for 30 years and have two grown kids now out of the house. Kay works part-time at the local Coldwater Creek, and Arnold is an accountant accustomed to routine and matters of a practical nature rather than the heart. They sleep in separate bedrooms and rarely interact beyond their daily routines. That is, until Kay gets it in her head that she wants to reignite their relationship and signs up for a weeklong intensive marital therapy session in Great Hope Springs, Maine, with Dr. Feld (played straight by Steve Carell, who should continue to stretch himself in roles beyond the comedic).
The result is a hilarious, sometimes queasy — because there's a bit of Kay or Arnold in you — ride-along as two people attempt to reconnect (and not just physically) after years of living together but alone.
While Meryl Streep has taken our breath away with her recent performances channeling real-life characters such as Margaret Thatcher and Julia Childs, here she plays herself, down to her hot-rolled hair and reading glasses. She knows Kay and all her shy but determined needs to connect, and she carries out her character's desires in her own naturally funny and flirty ways. Rather than impress audiences by showing how well she can disappear into being someone else, Streep, in Hope Springs, is everyman in a way that Meryl equals Kay equals you sitting in the theater.
Tommy Lee Jones (No Country for Old Men), known for playing taciturn and gruff without trying, would at first seem an odd choice to play opposite Streep in a romantic comedy. And yet he too (though he would deny it) has a lot of Arnold in him. His character is not exactly mean, but he's closed-off. Hard as Kay might try to reach him, and as wanting as his male instincts remain, he can't quite get out of his own way. But Jones makes us understand Arnold's reluctance to peel away his layers because we, in the audience, know how painful that process can be.
As it turns out, the on-screen chemistry between Jones and Streep is spot on, both in their characters' relationship's dry days, and as they grow closer. And Carell (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), as the therapist who facilitates the reconnection, stays appropriately out of the way, offering empathy, as a counselor should, without over-involving himself in the action.
Frankel has definitely got a gift for mining his characters' mannerisms and actions for comedy, and in Hope Springs we laugh because Kay's trembling expression as she tries to seduce her husband is so relatable, or Arnold's under-his-breath wincing over what the good doc recommends is so believable. But the winning factor here is that Frankel got real — really real — in confronting the issues at hand.
We don't see up close Kay's unsuccessful attempt to perform fellatio on Arnold, but we sure know what's happening. We don't get literally into bed with this couple, but we witness all their fears, their feelings and their yearnings. In that, Frankel has succeeded by making a movie about intimacy intimate yet universal.
And what's best is that, while we in the 50-plus crowd can enjoy, relate and even learn something from the specific story that Hope Springs tells, a younger audience might get just as much out of the film's funny moments and its real-life themes.
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