Thursday, August 9, 2012

Couple's Retreat: HOPE SPRINGS

It’s always nice to see a Hollywood film about adults with adult problems handled in reasonably mature ways. That provides a break from all the movies about kids, teens, and adults who act like kids and teens. But I think Hope Springs goes beyond the pat demographic longing that informs so many comments from people desiring a more grown up look at characters. It brings a slow, mellow mood that for the most part simply looks on as an aging couple struggles to keep the spark of marriage alive. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play a wife and husband who sleep in separate rooms, go about mostly separate routines, never really say what’s on their minds, and never physically connect for anything longer than a peck on the cheek. Even a hug seems to be too much to ask.

Change comes when Streep forces Jones to go with her to a couples’ retreat in Maine for intensive therapy with a renowned marriage counselor. Steve Carell plays him. A great deal of the film is devoted to these three actors sitting in a therapist’s office. In mostly medium shots, Carell calmly asks questions and then we cut across the coffee table to Streep and Jones answering them. After each session, husband and wife walk around the small tourist town and struggle to enact the intimacy challenges that the therapist has just given them. This is a gentle, mildly comic drama that plays out. We watch as two people who have not so much grown apart as grown uncommunicative and then formed some deep ruts of routine try mightily to find their way out, a way to rekindle the romantic sensations of the early years of their marriage, times that are nearly thirty years in the past.

Though the film didn't ultimately win me over, I admire the seriousness with which director David Frankel (of The Devil Wears Prada) and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (of several TV shows, most recently Game of Thrones) approach this material. There’s little strain for humor or uplift. It’s a film on an even keel that trusts good actors to bring the charm and conflict that will let the gentle humor bubble up rather naturally. Though the humor is there at times, it doesn’t arrive from the simple fact that older people might want intimacy or from a point of view that mocks the couple’s dysfunctions. It’s essentially a quiet and compassionate little movie. Streep and Jones give gentle performances that go a little against type, but because they’re such total professionals who take the whole thing as seriously as the director and writer, it basically works.

She is a woman who has been closed off for so long that her daring to take the journey to get help feels like a radical act. She’s willing to do what it takes to make their marriage work. At first Jones seems to be playing his typical craggy curmudgeon role. He complains about everything all the way there and for a good while after they arrive. But soon it becomes clear that he’s just as hurt as she is. In a career of tough guy wisecracking, here’s a role that calls for real vulnerability. That he pulls it off so well is further proof, if for some reason you need some, that he’s just as much a national treasure as his co-star.

But for all there is to admire about Hope Springs, it sadly felt hollow to me. For all of the therapy sessions and emotional revelations, we don’t really get to learn much about the characters. An intriguing scene of the couple telling their romantic history to the therapist quickly becomes a montage that’s basically the film in a nutshell. It’s interested in using its concept for quick engagement rather than the kind of deeper, character-based work that the actors appear more than capable of exploring. This is not a season of the underrated psychiatrist show In Treatment condensed into 100 minutes. No, this is a movie that’s content to appear serious, show off solid performances, but never really dig in and turn into something really special.

In what is probably the most disappointing narrative choice, the therapist character never becomes a character at all. Forget that Carell, a charming screen presence himself, fills the role. He has nothing to do. If the film ever gives him a line of dialogue that is not related to asking the couple questions or ever reveals anything about him other than his profession, I must have missed it. There’s no good reason why he’s in the movie at all. Streep and Jones might as well be talking to a robot or reading marriage advice out of a how-to book. But who can blame Carell for wanting to act in the same room as these legends? They’re certainly the only good reason to see the movie. And even that’s not quite enough of a reason for me to recommend it in any way other than half-heartedly.

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