Hope Springs

Stars (almost) to the rescue— Streep, Jones and Carell can only do so much

Aug 8, 2012 at 12:00 am
Jones and Streep try to keep it real.
Jones and Streep try to keep it real.

Hope Springs| C-

A top-notch cast can polish even the ugliest turd into something appealing, and though Hope Springs isn't quite as awful as all that, it does demonstrate just how much Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell can do with a predictable, cliché-ridden script.

Married for 31 years, Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) live their comfortably suburban lives in a state of routine loneliness and emotional detachment. Sleeping in separate bedrooms, barely touching, rehashing conversations they've had time and again, and celebrating their anniversary with a new cable package, they emphasize the empty in empty nest. Despairing over the state of their marriage, and particularly her husband's lack of involvement, Kay insists that they attend a week of in-depth counseling in Great Hope Springs, Maine. There, renowned author Dr. Feld (Carell) helps repair damaged relationships. Grouchy Arnold reluctantly agrees to go along even though it affronts every cheapskate bone in his cheapskate body.

While it's refreshing to see a film that deals with adult relationships in their twilight years, and Hope Springs benefits from some terrifically uncomfortable on-the-couch therapy scenes, screenwriter Vanessa Taylor can't help but make cartoons of her lead characters. Instead of creating complex, three-dimensional human beings, she infantilizes the emotions and life experiences of older Americans. 

Streep's Kay, in particular, is depicted as so sexually inexperienced that her reactions are often more suited to a teenager first testing the romantic waters than a long-married adult who has forgotten how to be intimate with her husband. The couple's blundering attempts at sexual intimacy are mostly played for uncomfortable laughs, even as Jones and Streep struggle to make things heartbreakingly real.

There is also an undercurrent of scornful condescension toward Middle American suburbia in Hope Springs that makes one wonder when Taylor last visited this place she writes about. Arnold is, of course, an accountant, whose few defining traits include: reading the paper over a single egg and slice of bacon each morning and ending every evening in a chair, watching shows that offer golf tips. Before counseling and after, he has no defining interests or ideas. He is an empty container desperately waiting for an actor like Jones to make him, if not real, at least lifelike.

More puzzling is Carell's decision to play the bland supporting character of Dr. Feld. On the one hand, he gives his warm and patient therapist the same convincing decency that makes his comic performances so special. On other hand you can't help but be reminded how much more Carell is capable of. Neither Taylor's script nor the direction of David Frankel (The Big Year) makes a case for his talented participation, and one can't help but imagine how far superior a film this might have been in the hands of someone like Judd Apatow.

Look, in a summer crammed with superheroes, it's nice to get something aimed at more mature audiences. I was tempted to give Hope Springs a pass on those grounds alone. Unfortunately, no matter how much gravitas, inner turmoil, and skill Jones and Streep bring to their characters, Arnold and Kay ring no truer than Batman and Spider-Man.

Might as well stick with the explosions.