Friday, August 10, 2012

"Hope Springs" a refreshing summer surprise

Hope Springs (2012)
100 min., rated PG-13.

The ads make "Hope Springs" look like something it's not: a broad orgasms are funny! hackwork from the Oxygen network. Lead star Meryl Streep already let her hair down in Nancy Meyer's pillowy, simple entertainment, "It's Complicated," but "Hope Springs" is more than just another glossy comedy about rich, white people problems. In fact, it is a piece of mainstream fare for grown-ups and with more nerve, nuance, and nourishment than one might expect. A smart, delicate, and mature portrait of a marriage is a rare bird in this market, especially when it stars two famous, wonderfully paired 60-somethings to do all the heavy lifting. 

Streep plays Kay Soames, a demure Omaha woman who's tired of feeling like a married roommate to her grumpy husband Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones. They've been married for 31 years and are in a sexless rut, cohabitating in the same house but sleeping in separate bedrooms. Every morning is a routine: Kay serves her hubby two eggs and bacon, while Arnold reads the newspaper and then goes to work, only to return home for dinner and sit in his chair to watch The Golf Channel. Arnold's content, but Kay would like to shake things up and rekindle their intimacy. There's hope when she finds a book whose author, Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell), runs a week-long intense couples counseling in Hope Springs, Maine. Kay goes ahead and books the trip, but getting Arnold on that plane will only be the first step in fixing their relationship.

Working again with director David Frankel (2011's benign "The Big Year") after her deliciously bitchy, multifaceted turn in "The Devil Wears Prada," Streep is at the top of her game. As a woman that just wants to be loved and touched, she finds a fragile loveliness and subtlety in Kay. Jones is her equal, and almost seems to be playing himself or the same cynical, scowling persona he's established for himself over the years. His Arnold is so emotionally constipated and stuck in his ways, but when the couple tries to follow through on one of their therapy assignments in a movie theater, Jones smiling seems like a breakthrough. As this Midwestern couple, they have an ordinary, everyman quality that's positively relatable, tender, and fun to watch. When they try to resurrect their sex life, they make it simultaneously sweet and uncomfortable. Carell gets third billing, mostly there to give advice and listen, but the straight-man comedian still holds his own when he's giving Kay and Arnold a helpful push. His broken-marriage metaphor to a broken nose is amusing. Though the film has no extraneous subplots, the solidly cast supporting players get one or two scenes each, including Jean Smart, as Kay's friend and Coldwater Creek co-worker; Becky Ann Baker, as a Maine waitress; Elisabeth Shue, as a friendly, ear-lending bartender; and Mimi Rogers, in one scene, as a neighbor with three Corgis.

TV writer Vanessa Taylor's script is intelligent and truthful, taking the mending of Kay and Arnold's marriage quite seriously and showing no judgment of either character (the failing of their marriage is a two-way street). Even if it's not a full-out comedy, the writing can be funny and the actors find sly moments of humor. For instance, when Bernie asks them about their sex life, the sight of Streep buttoning up her sweater is very funny. Frankel's direction has a light, sensitive touch, and the therapy sessions have such a real, quiet frankness and just play out so we can see the authentic progression of Kay and Arnold's relationship. Streep and Jones sell the emotion like pros that, even though it's small potatoes, some of the film's song choices are unnecessary with lyrics that are a bit too on-the-nose. The fact that the actors' shedding of emotion comes from such a sad, honest place would've been enough.

Ticket-buyers will expect fluff, but for a big-studio release, "Hope Springs" is satisfyingly small and immensely likable, without the fluff. Free of any forced attempts at comedy, plot contrivances, or mawkish sentimentality, this is a refreshing surprise for the over-50 crowd or anyone who's ever been in a relationship he or she didn't want to end.

Grade: B +

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