A grown-up film with an age-old problem
People (all right, people of a certain age) complain all the time that movies aren’t being made for grown-ups. This misstates the problem. It’s good movies that aren’t being made for grown-ups. “Hope Springs” is a case in point. It’s made for grown-ups, all right. It positively panders to them — as the “Step Up” movies, say, pander to teenagers. But “Hope Springs” panders with the clumsiness of grown-ups trying to do “Step Up” dance moves.
Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) live in Omaha. He’s a partner in an accounting firm. Their two kids are grown. They’ve just celebrated their 31st anniversary. They sleep in separate bedrooms and sleepwalk through their lives. If they were in any more of a rut, this would be a remake of “Groundhog Day.” Only Kay realizes how numb they’ve become. She signs them up — much to Arnold’s dismay — for a week at a high-priced center for marriage counseling, in Maine. (The movie was shot in Connecticut and New York.)
“Hope Springs” has 2½ things going for it. One of them, of course, is Streep. Watching her cast a simultaneously querulous and lascivious eye on a bunch of bananas is a four-second master class in how much an actor can do while seemingly not doing anything at all.
The other is, of course, Jones. Hearing him emit a strangulated “Huh?” (part question, part growl, part cry for help) during a discussion about oral sex is a one-second master class in the eloquence of being at a loss for words.
The half is Steve Carell. As the counselor working with Streep and Jones, he serves as umpire while they’re alternately at bat and in the field. It’s only a half because he never has the chance to play. Basically, Carell just gets to sit around and be calm and shrewd — but for him that qualifies as casting against type, so it’s refreshing to see.
Actually, there’s another thing that you would assume “Hope Springs” has going for it. Its director, David Frankel, also directed “The Devil Wears Prada.” A lot of people liked that movie a lot. This was partly owing to Streep’s tour de force as fashion editor supreme Miranda Priestley. Kay is the anti-Miranda: dumpy, downtrodden, dismayed. Streep being Streep, she mouse-ifies herself superbly. Yet Streep being Streep, it’s discouraging to see her so reduced.
The success of “Devil” also owed a lot to the supporting presence of Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt. “Hope” is in effect a three-character play. Arnold has a pal at work. We briefly see the kids. Elisabeth Shue has an out-of-left-field cameo as the world’s least plausible bartender (at least she doesn’t attempt a Down East accent). Oh, and Mimi Rogers, as an Omaha neighbor, shows up at the very end to enable an extremely funny joke. But that’s about it. An airless script about a largely airless relationship better be Strindberg, or it’s asking for trouble. “Hope Springs” is not Strindberg.
The Rogers joke has such a great payoff because it was set up 45 minutes earlier. It’s about the only example of any sort of carpentry in Vanessa Taylor’s script. Her previous work has been in TV, and “Hope Springs” has the slack texturelessness of TV. Worse, it’s tonally challenged. The movie can’t decide whether it’s more comedy or drama. It has elements of both, but they keep bumping up against each other. Or they are each other: Some of the comic scenes are the saddest ones in the movie. You feel embarrassed for Streep and Jones (Streep especially) because of the situations, often sexual, they’re put in. They’re definitely not mailing in their performances. They keep doing their best to light a fire under the movie. But even the most talented Eagle Scouts can’t do much when they’re rubbing together waterlogged sticks.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.