David Frankel: HOPE SPRINGS (2012)


Couples therapy: one could weep

An aging American population gets a solid little look at the relationship problems of the long married in Frankel's Hope Springs, which pairs two excellent and very familiar character actors, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, for the first time. As Kay and Arnold, a lady employed in a shop and a well-salaried accountant, the pair participate in an "intensive" program with couples therapist, author, and Internet star Dr. Feld (Steve Carell, playing it very straight) in the pretty little Maine seacoast town of Great Hope Springs, where half the town can recognize his clients. Their sojourn at an Econo Lodge looks like a vacation trip, but it's hard work. They've been married 31 years, and their two children are grown and married and out on their own. Though still faithful and devoted to their marriage, they sleep in separate rooms, hardly talk, live a deadening routine. Dr. Feld explores their sexual history and gives them daily projects leading up to full-on intimacy. The whole interest of the movie is how hard this is, how touching, embarrassing, risky and verging on disaster the projects are, and how much the grumpy, sullen Arnold fights it all. Kay pays for the trip out of her own savings. Arnold refuses to go and only appears in the plane at the last minute. He walks out or threatens to walk out of sessions with the therapist multiple times.

Time apart after a combative session includes a boozy afternoon for Kay in the local pub tended by Elizabeth Shue. When she asks her customers which ones aren't getting any sex and a lot of arms go up, the movie successfully generates the feeling that this isn't just about Kay and Arnold. The latter meanwhile visits the town museum and takes a meditative walk by the water, and that night, back in the Econo Lodge, the pair bravely assay Dr. Feld's tough latest assignment. As the sessions continue the recalcitrant Arnold winds up trying hard too. Things progress by measurable ups and downs, but the conventional scope of TV writer Vanessa Taylor's screenplay can allow for nothing but a happy ending. (She's noted for scripting the HBO couples-therapy drama, "Tell Me You Love Me.")

Frankel is a somewhat wooden and unimaginative director, given here to crudely underlining emotional points with loud relevantly-titled pop songs, but the generic feel and the fame of the main actors soomehow combine to make this a movie that delivers a lesson while still entertaining. The ever-adaptable Streep impresses as always, this time by seeming plain and old, yet a woman who tries to look good: she's always fluffing up her hair, and in the opening scene tries to tempt Arnold by posing in a negligee in the doorway of his bedroom. Jones may deserve more credit for tackling a role outside his usual territory and teetering back and forth without violation of tone between the resistant fossilized male and a man desperate to save his lifelong companion, even if it hurts to try.

I wonder how an Italian like the comic writer-director-actor Carlo Verdone might do this, playing the Tommy Lee Jones role. Verdone's 2004 marriage comedy Love Is Eternal While It Lasts (L'amore è eterno finché dura) may not be a fair example, because it's full of infidelities, but it's basically about reviving a mature marriage that's lost its oomph. And Verdone is typically comic and keeps things light and amusing. Nothing like that from Frankel, but I kept remembering his previous outing with Streep six years ago in the nicely titled The Devil Wears Prada, with her playing a lightly disguised version of the icy fashion queen Anna Wintour, AKA "Nuclear Wintour," the quintessence of elegant bitchiness. What a letdown is the brave but slightly sad Kay, and what a loss of context: the accent in Hope Springs is on process, not context, the atmosphere kept so generic one could almost be in an instructional film, were it not that the Encyclopedia Britannica couldn't have afforded A-list actors.

There's nothing too rakish here, just as there's nothing particularly funny. But with actors this good, and with Steve Carell providing an excellent neutrality, there are a number of painfully awkward but touching moments. The audience seemed to laugh more out of a natural and even healthy embarrassment, and fell utterly silent at the most intimate parts. Partly because of its lack of a light touch, the film sometimes seems as uncomfortable with its subject matter as Kay and Arnold are, but Frankel must be doing something right. An audience member I met walking out was in tears from awakened memories of a recent breakup. Hope Springs seems destined for a good solid weepy run.