Silver Screen: Hope Springs ***1/2
A common critique of modern mainstream cinema is that the youth demographic overwhelmingly dominates the market and there aren't enough movies made for mature adults. Hope Springs, an unlikely romantic drama, is one of those rare films, although you can't exactly say this is how they used to make 'em. In fact, Hope Springs tackles a topic almost never seriously addressed at the movies.
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones costar as Kay and Arnold, a couple whose thirty-year marriage is on the rocks, unbeknownst to the emotionally undemonstrative Arnold. Kay, tired of their staid routine of living parallel but in many ways unrelated lives, books the pair for a weeklong intensive therapy session in the quaint town of Hope Springs.
Only the suddenly very real threat of the marriage ending prompts Arnold to go along, but the therapy sessions are an immediate disaster. He refuses to acknowledge the validity of their problems and Kay is afraid to voice her own opinions. Their therapist, Doctor Feld (Steve Carell, very present but unobtrusive, like a good shrink), must force them to rediscover the intimacy they've lost or face the possibility that they may be better off alone.
“Lost intimacy” is a demure way of putting it. The more direct approach: Yes, Hope Springs is in fact about old people doin' it. But despite the cutesy movie poster with its pastel colors, not to mention the presence of Carell, this is not a movie about playing sex for a laugh. It would be awfully easy for director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) to turn this into a sweetly ribald comedy, but he plays Vanessa Taylor’s sharply crafted, insightful script straight. The result is a movie that takes quite seriously the topic of fading love and the role of physical relations in long-term relationships.
It's fairly obvious why few movies have honestly tackled this topic. Watching Hope Springs is indeed a lot like listening to your parents talk about getting laid. For this reason it's bound to be a little squirm-inducing for viewers younger than forty, but that is in many ways the very point the movie seeks to make. Watching Meryl Streep try to give a senior citizen a B.J. in a movie theater wasn't on anybody's bucket list, and it's every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds. But Frankel executes these scenes nicely, allowing the awkward humor to exist without steering into it, but also not letting the tone become too emotionally exhausting.
Every year or two some impossibly beautiful actor or actress will pack on a few pounds, steer clear of their hair stylist for a week, shun the pancake makeup, and be called brave for it. But of course they get to go back to being beautiful immediately thereafter. Brave is being a sixty-year-old icon and managing to shoot a scene in which you practice oral sex on a banana without copping out to silliness or, far worse, lapsing into unintentional comedy. Streep and Jones are fantastic. With the exception of Carell and a pair of bit roles by Elisabeth Shue and Mimi Rogers, they're the only two performers onscreen most of the time, and they both make their precarious task look effortless. It's two actors with a century or so of experience between them working at the top of their game, in a movie that is imperfect but absolutely distinctive. It's surprisingly involving and unexpectedly poignant.
Just make sure you don't go with your parents.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.