Directed by: David Frankel
Premise: A couple (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) married for over three decades attends a week-long counseling session.
What Works: Hope Springs is a character study of a couple, exploring the intricacies of their relationship but it is much more entertaining and accessible than that sounds. Like most character studies, the focus is not on the plot but on peeling through the layers of the characters by examining their actions and reactions. For such a film to work requires actors capable of nuance and subtlety and Hope Springs has that in lead performers Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. The two are convincing not only as a couple but as a couple that has been together for a long time and the two actors make very interesting and revealing choices in their posture and line delivery and in the way they physically and verbally react to one another. Jones in particular is very good and his performance in Hope Springs features some of his best work in recent years. The impressive acting work is showcased in the counseling sessions which are the highlight of the film. Although these scenes consist of three people sitting and talking, director David Frankel finds ways of shooting the couple that, while not flashy, break up the scenes and pick appropriate angles and reaction shots. These scenes are also distinguished because they are so visceral, as the couple gets into the sexual and emotional details of their lives. The counseling sessions require a lot from Streep and Jones and the two deliver. The actors and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor deserve a lot of credit for the courage with which this film has been made. Dealing frankly with sexuality in ways that are not tantalizing or condescending is something rare in American cinema but the filmmakers of Hope Springs manage to not only do that but also deal credibly with the romantic lives of sexagenarians. That leads to the other way this film manages to distinguish itself. The basis for Hope Springs is actually quite familiar, as a bored housewife wants to rekindle the desire in an aging marriage. In a lesser film the husband would be an abusive or undeserving dullard and the wife would be liberated by leaving him to find validation somewhere else. That is an easy way out and the filmmakers of Hope Springs don’t take it. Instead they acknowledge the desires and fears of both of these people, especially the husband played by Jones, and get into some interesting and affecting substance about the ways time and age impact love and marriage.
What Doesn’t: Hope Springs treads on being a little too sweet, especially in its ending. The conclusion of the film includes a coda that is out of place and belongs in a lesser film like He’s Just Not That Into You. The casting of Steve Carrell as the marriage counselor comes across as an odd choice. Carrell is fine in the role but he is also wasted in it. His presence carries a lot of noise and viewers who are familiar with his work will likely expect him to break into the kind of awkward comedy that he does so well. He never does that, which his just as well since it would be inappropriate for this film, but Carrell does not do much of anything and his presence is a distraction during the counseling sessions in which the audience’s attention should be focused on the couple.
Bottom Line: Hope Springs is a bold movie with some terrific performances by seasoned actors. Although parts of it may be a little uncomfortable for general audiences in the same way that Closer was also discomforting, it is exactly because it goes for that visceral territory that the film works as well as it does.
Episode: #401 (August 19, 2012)