VIDEO ESSAYS: HOPE SPRINGS, NITRO CIRCUS, THE CAMPAIGN, AND CLASSIC FILM PICK - WEST SIDE STORY
If it weren’t for its outdated music video segues, “Hope Springs” could just be the best romantic comedy about marriage ever made. Television writer Vanessa Taylor’s terrific debut feature script provides an ideal stage for two of cinema’s finest actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep. Convincingly playing off one another as a married couple of 31 years, Streep and Jones create an onscreen chemistry that runs the full gamut of emotional colors. The actors never share a scene that doesn’t resonate with energized drama and humor. This aging pair of master thespians are golden together.
Arnold (Jones) is a grumpy Omaha tax consultant who has lost romantic desire for his doting wife Kay (Streep). The movie opens with a telling scene of Kay making a sexual overture to Arnold in his separate bedroom. Arnold demurs, explaining that he “ate pork for lunch.” Kay retreats to her room. Kay and Arnold haven't communicated much since their children flew the coop five years ago. Kay looks into a couple’s therapist in the appropriately-named seaside Maine town of Great Hope Springs whose calmly romantic setting is idyllic without giving into cliché. Getting Arnold to come along for a weeklong therapy session under Steve Carell’s exquisitely played Dr. Feld, however, is no simple matter. But Streep’s Kay is a resourceful woman whose twinkle in her eye hasn’t gone out.
As anticipated, the therapy sequences in Dr. Feld’s comfortable office energize the story with exacting wit. In what might be Carell’s best performance to date, the mannered actor never strays from his character’s pure intentions. Dr. Feld is on the up-and-up. That’s not to say Dr. Feld is shy about probing into the couple’s sexual proclivities and fantasy lives. A good deal of narrative movement comes from the daily exercise Dr. Feld gives Kay and Arnold to experiment with in the privacy of their hotel room. Although the text never gets quite as racy as it seems it might, Streep and Jones commit to plenty of daring intimacy that ranges from humorous to excruciatingly authentic.
Meryl Streep’s trademark naturalism is on full display. Her gift for comic timing comes through in the tiniest of gestures. A slight head-tilt or a devilish grin speaks volumes. The ever-seeping joy in her performance is catching. Kay is an American everywoman for a generation of budding grandmothers. For his part, Tommy Lee Jones enjoys more of a revelation as a comic presence thanks to his character’s broader demands in the growth department. An actor of carefully modulated emotions, Jones works in a micro-scale that is tremendously effective, as during a lovemaking moment when his facial expression “unconsciously” tells too much. Streep and Jones operate on an elevated level of acting precision that bounces gently above every dramatic beat. The sensual tension and suspense between Kay and Arnold is simultaneously eccentric and universal.
Director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) has made a terribly sweet movie that will speak to generations of married couples. It’s amazing to witness big Hollywood stars throwing themselves into roles that demand such a challenging level of emotional expression and investment. “Hope Springs” is a romantic comedy with the potential to actually save some marriages.
Rated PG-13. 100 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
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