Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hope Springs

MGM has falsely advertised the Meryl Streep-Tommy Lee Jones vehicle “Hope Springs” as a laugh-a-minute sex romp for the 50+ demographic. What it is, at its best, is a somber, often sad portrait of a marriage in long, slow declension, with a few small chuckles interspersed for comic relief. Director David Frankel – fresh off the ornithological Jack Black-Steve Martin-Owen Wilson bomb “The Big Year” – never commits to either the drama or the comedy, leaving “Hope Springs” in a state of limbo that produced queasy discomfort among my audience, who clearly didn’t get what they expected.

Streep is, of course, a treasure, and the best thing about any movie she’s in. It’s been a joy in recent years to see Streep appreciated as a gifted comedienne, which some of us have known since “She-Devil” and “Death Becomes Her” and “Defending Your Life.” (In that last picture, she co-starred with Albert Brooks as recent decedents facing trial in Judgment City to determine whether they’ll be returned to Earth or moved on to the next phase of human development. Your accommodations give you some idea how the ruling’s gonna come down. On a date, Streep tells Brooks, who’s at an Econo Lodge, about the Jacuzzi in her palatial hotel room. “Oh, I shouldn’t be going on like this,” she says. “No, it’s fine,” he assures her, “Go on.” “Okay,” she continues, “It’s won-der-ful.”) Jones, who’s done some decent work (“In the Valley of Elah”) among a shitload of paycheck parts, is basically playing a caricature of himself in “Hope Springs,” a knotted-up, stooped-over robot husband who after 31 years of marriage just wants to fall asleep watching the Golf Channel. Steve Carell, as the marriage guru they travel to Maine to work with, has only lines to recite; the part never opens up for him.

It’s left to Streep to introduce the few grace notes of humanity in the picture, including the first scene, which shows her Kay mussing her hair seductively in anticipation of making an extremely rare suggestion – that she and Arnold actually have sex – only to be rebuffed, not with any animosity but with surprise and almost incomprehension. I’d love to see a smart, sophisticated movie about the effects of time on the love and sex lives of a long-term couple. But “Hope Springs” is not that. It’s the sort of picture where Frankel has Streep take a banana and a copy of “Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man” into the bathroom, then keep turning the book at ninety degree angles as if to figure it out. It’s the sort of picture where a colleague makes a comment to Jones in an office restroom and, minutes later, Jones makes a major life decision based on it. Later, Streep drowns her sorrows at a bar. “How many people here aren’t having sex?” the sassy bartender asks the crowd. Happens all the time, right?

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