Hope Springs: Your Burning Questions Answered

by Ethan Alter August 8, 2012 6:00 am
<i>Hope Springs</i>: Your Burning Questions Answered

Who says the summer movie season is exclusively home to superheroes, super spies and talking teddy bears? As formidable as Jeremy Renner looks in this week's token action picture The Bourne Legacy, I'd put my money on the dynamic duo of Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, the stars of the new AARP-approved marital comedy Hope Springs, to take him out. (Actually, Streep could probably put him down entirely on her own. Have you ever seen The River Wild? That chick will mess you up.) I'm sure you have plenty of questions about the movie, so let's get right to it.

Actually, I really don't have any questions about this movie because I have no idea what it is -- has the studio even advertised it? Have there been any trailers? Is this a re-release of that Sandra Bullock movie Hope Floats with Ryan Gosling digitally swapped in for Harry Connick Jr.?
Sadly, no -- you'll have to get your Sandy and Harry fix exclusively from cable outlets like Lifetime. And speaking of Lifetime, if you haven't seen any commercials for Hope Floats Springs (damn, now you've got me doing it), clearly you aren't watching this season of Project Runway, because this movie has been advertised a ton during those 90 minutes. I'm sure the trailers are playing on other age-appropriate channels as well, including HGTV, The History Channel and maybe even OWN. Heck, a 30-second spot for Hope Springs would probably score better ratings than any of the actual shows on that network.

Well, you can't exactly blame me for not watching Project Runway. When was the last time that show was any good? Anyway, give me the rundown on this Hope Springs thing 'cause I'm not about to track down the info on my own. That title makes it sounds like a Nicolas Sparks book. Is that what it is? If so, I'll stop you right there.
Amazingly, Sparks has yet to use the word "hope" in one of his book titles, although I'm sure he'll cross that barrier soon enough. No, this is the first feature screenplay credit for Vanessa Taylor, who has previously written for such awesome TV shows as Alias, Everwood and Game of Thrones. It's also directed by David Frankel, who previously helmed The Devil Wears Prada.

Okay, I like both Game of Thrones and The Devil Wears Prada so continue...
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play Kay and Arnold, an Omaha couple celebrating their 31st year of wedded bliss. Well, they used to be blissful at least. These days, they sleep in separate bedrooms, enjoy separate pastimes and pretty much lead separate lives. They haven't had a real conversation in a long while and haven't had sex in even longer. Arnold seems okay with -- or at least resolved to -- the status quo, but Kay has reached her breaking point. So on impulse, she raids her savings and signs them up for an intensive couples therapy session with a prominent marital counselor named Dr. Feld, played by Steven Carell, who runs his practice out of a picturesque (and overpriced) small town in Maine. They plop down on the couch and proceed to open up their lives and marriage for this expert, tentatively at first, but eventually with more frankness than they've expressed in ages.

Uh huh. And this feature-length marital counseling session for old people is worth seeing... why?
Would you believe me if I said it was actually very funny? Because it legitimately is. Also sweet and touching in a way I wasn't entirely expecting. Believe me, I shared your extreme disinterest going in, but the movie won me over early on thanks largely to the two stars. Unless you enjoy an exceptionally close relationship with your own parents, I would probably advise against going to see it with them because it'll spark lots of very uncomfortable conversation topics. But maybe you can drop them off for a date night, while you drive over to another theater to watch it so you don't have to see how they react to some of the more, shall we say... risqué situations.

You said this was a comedy, right? So I'm guessing Steve Carell is actually a Michael Scott-like doofus who tells them to do all sorts of crazy stuff? Or maybe instead of helping them, they help him in his own marriage instead?
Believe it or not, there's no Office shenanigans here. Carell plays this role absolutely, positively straight. Hell, Feld doesn't even have a real storyline; we never see him outside of the office and in all their sessions together, he asks the right questions and, in general, behaves like a licensed professional. It's kind of disconcerting to see Carell acting like a normal person at first, to be honest. But it works as it keeps the focus of the movie where it belongs, on Streep and Jones.

This is the part where you're gonna tell me that Meryl Streep is terrific, that she's the world's best actress and in general just bigger than Jesus, right?
Sorry, but it's the gospel truth. Every time I think that Streep has reached the bottom of her bag of tricks -- that she's just phoning it in on autopilot -- she continues to prove just how limitless an actress she is. In a way, this performance is even more impressive than her Oscar-winning work in The Iron Lady. There she had the make-up and the accent to hide behind to a certain extent; in Hope Springs she's just playing an ordinary Midwestern mom and housewife and she absolutely kills it. Jones is pretty great too -- since Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau passed on, he's the best grumpy old man around right now -- but Streep is the movie's heart, soul and laugh factory. And considering her status as this prestigious Drama Queen, there's just something absurdly amusing about the fact that one of Kay's major story arcs involves her trying to learn how to give a great blowjob.

Wait... what?
Didn't you hear the thing I said about there being some risqué situations? Sex is a huge part of this movie. There's an extended sequence where Kay and Arnold describe their various sexual fantasies with Dr. Feld (Arnold's involve a threesome with their corgi-loving next-door neighbor) and the doc gives them "homework" assignments, like touching each other erogenous zones. He also tasks Kay with buying a sex advice book that instructs her to practice her oral technique on a banana, which she does. See why I recommend against seeing this with you own parents?

Are you telling me that Meryl Streep deep-throats a banana?
Well, she tries to anyway. Remember, Kay's not supposed to be very good at that sort of thing. She also engages in some noisy self-pleasuring.

Uh huh...
And tries to go down on Jones in a movie theater during a French film. Which, fun fact, is the 1998 farce The Dinner Game, later remade as the American comedy Dinner for Schmucks starring... Steve Carell!

Oh yeah, and the movie's climax involves Kay and Arnold rolling around in front of a hotel fireplace like teenagers in heat.

Are you still there?

C'mon, you've seen more blowjob and masturbation gags than this in any American Pie movie.

Yeah, but those characters aren't old enough to be my Mom and Dad.
Like I said, it may not be the right pick for a family night out at the movies. But your parents will probably be laughing even if you aren't.

That's what I'm afraid of.
Honestly, I was less bothered by any of that than the movie's completely unironic use of the old Annie Lenox song "Why" to express the characters' inner turmoil. That's how you know which audience this movie is aimed at... the one that still perks up whenever that song comes on their favorite golden oldies station. The music in general is one of the film's major flaws; because this is a studio production, the filmmakers feel the need to play a pop song or a sappy instrumental piece underneath every big emotional moment. It's intrusive and annoying and comes close to killing the mood instead of enhancing it.

Any other problem areas, besides the banana fellatio?
Yeah, the pacing gets pretty slack midway through the second act and the conclusion feels too rushed -- like they were briefly contemplating a more downbeat ending before quickly course-correcting to the expected happier finale. There are also a surprising amount of well-known actors -- like Elisabeth Shue and Jean Smart -- who pop up in really small roles, like only one or two scenes. I kept wondering if there was more material with them that was just cut out, so that was a little distracting at times. Also distracting is the fact that it's supposedly set in Maine, yet clearly filmed in Connecticut and upstate New York. And while I'm ultimately glad that Taylor didn't concoct a separate storyline for Carell just to give him more scenes, the movie's resounding endorsement of his methods and therapy in general makes it feel superficial. I almost felt like I was watching an extended ad for the benefits of marital counseling at times, the kind that might play on MSNBC at three in the morning.

But overall you're endorsing this thing, huh?
I am. It's a film of modest ambitions, but it mostly achieves them and does so in an entertaining, emotionally honest fashion to boot. Next to Ted, this is probably the mainstream comedy that I've laughed hardest at this summer. Of course, Hope Springs loses points for not making room for a Sam Jones cameo, but you can't have everything...

Looking for more answers to your burning questions about specific 2012 movies? Read our Q&A's of Battleship and This Means War

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