Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Hope Springs

2012. Dir: David Frankel. Starring: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Jean Smart and Elisabeth Shue. ●●●○○

Hope Springs is a film about middle aged couples sleeping. Admittedly there's a lot of chat about sex, a few love-making scenes played largely for laughs, and ostensibly the plot hangs on an intensive couples counselling course for frustrated housewife Meryl Streep and her stand-offish hubby Tommy Lee Jones. Yet the most significant change appears to relate to their night-time arrangements with Jones starting the film in the spare bedroom and moving back to the master suite by the closing credits (it's not a spoiler, were you honestly expecting divorce papers?) and the action is punctuated by Jones dropping off either in front of the TV or on the sofa-bed. This is a helpful hint to the viewer. It's OK to fall asleep during this movie. Go on, close your eyes, you won't miss anything...

Note, I am not saying David Frankel's film is boring (even if at 100 minutes it slightly outstays it's welcome) just that the movie is so relaxed, so gentle it doesn't seem to care if you nod off. Indeed it's almost designed that way.

Something is clearly wrong in Kay and Arnold's 31 year marriage.  Meryl, as Kay, is ruffling her hair and adjusting her nightgown to entice Jones to an evening of sexual indulgence.  Alas he's not in the mood - he even has a headache if you can believe it - so Meryl must return frustrated and flustered to her boudoir.  The morning after, with it's lack of eye-contact and air of officious routine highlights the steady decline in their relationship, and seems to be the norm, unrelated to the previous night's snub.  Spontaneity, romance, even those tiny signals of affection have all deserted Tommy Lee Jones in his twilight years.

Realising it's up to her to break the monotony, Meryl books the couple couple into an intensive course of relationship counselling (focusing on sex) under the watchful gaze of subdued Steve Carell.  Over the course of therapy our wedded pair must remind each other of why they originally fell in love, away from the hustle and bustle of their schedules in the Maine town of Great Hope Springs.  In order to reignite that spark Jones will have to face up to his bullying attitude and inability to address his own insecurities and fear of intimacy, whilst Streep will allow her confidence to blossom, opening up avenues in her sexuality.

Except that's not quite what happens.  Like most therapy related movies the denouement is rushed to make the point - the problems in this marriage couldn't be fixed in five days, surely?  So when they do have sex again it's not the fumble on the cinema back row, the champagne and strawberries or even the introspection and analysis that appear to be the catalyst.  Instead it's Jones' fear of loneliness and the overbearing Annie Lennox singing "Why" on the soundtrack which is then dressed up as the answer to all their problems.  Of course Jones still can't admit to his hangups and Streep has developed a shrewish streak, but in the world of Hope Springs they're finally shagging giving us the happy ending we want.

Streep and Jones make an interesting coupling.  They're at their best when the two of them are alone, relying on their physicality more than the dialogue, able to reveal intense and significant shared histories through a glance, the smallest of gestures or the briefest of touches.  Unfortunately when they have to connect with other cast members, especially during the counselling, Jones plays the "I don't want to be there" card so convincingly I thought he meant the film and Streep is working the facial tic for two - there's one scene where I swear she was about to launch into her Shakespeare monologue she was emoting so much.  Thankfully Carell has the balance right, projecting genuine concern with just the right touch of forcefulness when required.

Frankel doesn't make his presence behind the camera known but there are some nice touches vis a vis the staging, with a story being told purely in the positions the lead couple take up at the counselling sessions.  It's a shames the mood is occasionally jarred by the over-insistent soundtrack, painfully on-the-nose it appears to have been selected with i-pod shuffle on a fifty something's easy listening playlist.

Overall, in spite of all my misgivings, I did enjoy this movie.  There are times in every relationship where you aren't getting the sex (either frequency or variation) you want so the central conceit resonates.  However the film is neither a knock out sex farce nor the tragedy of a disillusioned marriage that it could be and going either way on that may have improved the overall experience. I would wait until it's showing on TV, and sit in front of it digesting a hearty meal.  You might take 40 winks in the middle but the film doesn't seem to mind and the effect of being woken up by Streep talking about oral sex can't be underestimated.

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