Friday, August 17, 2012

What Meryl Streep Wants.

Movie Review: Hope Springs

Director: David Frankel

Reviewed: 13 August 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

Meryl Streep is such an iconic, classic, exceptional actress that it is easy to forget her brilliance because I've come to expect it.  Despite one awkward moment during a sex scene in this film where Streep transforms briefly (due to some crazy angle and hair) into British P.M. Margaret Thatcher, her previous Oscar-winning role, from The Iron Lady, the finest living American actress embodies a struggling, unhappy empty nester Kay, with a stultifying and unsatisfying relationship to the stooped over, eyes downcast, curmudgeon of all curmudgeons, Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones.  A deliberate establishment of power dynamics within a marriage, conformity, isolation occurs in the opening sequence within the family home, leading to a disruption of the norm, Kay sitting down at the breakfast table with Arnold, sliding over to him a brochure for couples therapy in Maine, stating plainly, "I want to go." Arnold's resistance crashes headfirst into Kay's single-mindedness.  Both end up in Maine, at a picturesque seaside town, in the Econolodge, engaging and enduring sessions with the noted therapist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell).

Essentially, Frankel has constructed a couple's drama with comedic elements, a film that feels more like a play with its intense focus on the marriage and therapy, meaning that much of this film involves three or two characters in a room just talking.  And, that's fine.  Both Streep and Jones are quite capable of the heavy lifting and nuance.  The film is a study in body language, sighing, posture, and general nonverbal communication between an older couple.  The film offers a quasi-emotional payoff at the end that I don't think it quite earns, and I never feel like Carell's Feld is playing in the same ballpark or league as the Oscar winners.  The usually charismatic Carell seems stuck in a rut of playing sad, bland ciphers this year with his forgettable role in Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World and this film.  I'm not sure if my struggle is with Carell or with the way his character is written.  Yet, there is a very genuine sweetness to this film, a desire to not take the easy, simple road all of the time that I admire.

Though, its portrayal of a moribund marriage seems buoyed by the ability of Kay and Arnold to take an expensive trip to Maine to work on it for a week (though Arnold steadfastly believes that they are being ripped off; I love any excuse to hear the word "charlatan" uttered), as well as live a very comfortable lifestyle with Arnold as a partner who seems to ignore the absurdity of uttering work shop talk at the dinner table to his wife who couldn't care less.  And that hits upon one flaw of the film.  Jones's Arnold is a bullying, towering jerk, and his epiphanic moment (set to a lengthy, lovely Annie Lennox song, telegraphing his thoughts) arrives without any verbal realization or apology or justification.  It seemed as if the plot simply needed this moment to occur, so it did.  But I appreciate that for stretches the film seemed at risk of going into darker territory, possibly not heading towards a preordained conclusion.  Yet, without Arnold speaking, there is less to know about why he acts the way he does and less emotional resonance in the final credit sequence which is nonetheless fun.

I recommend this film.  There is some delightful work being done here by Streep and Jones, with Jones proving himself the master of the awkward wince and reluctant conversation.  Streep's facial contortions, body language, willingness to throw herself into any bizarre and compromising situation makes her all the more laudable, lovable.  Her involvement with any project raises it in my esteem, and Hope Springs, despite its generic setting and bland title, delivers solid level entertainment.  A fun night at the movies.

And, there's one absolutely lovely scene towards the end that Frankel has been building towards all film through careful and deliberate studied set-up.  It works quite wonderful in its anarchy and intoxication.  A really wonderful moment where a character surprises another and us.  Well-done.

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