“Hope Springs” – New review by MSN

Found a review on MSN, don’t know from when here:

One can only imagine how witty, wise and moving “Hope Springs” might have been in the hands of Mike Nichols, originally tapped to direct (“Carnal Knowledge” 30 years later?). Advertised as a romantic dramedy about middle-aged marriage gone stale, “Hope” dutifully delivers gentle laughs and occasional sexual farce. And probably that’s all director David Frankel — who mined such easy comedy out of cosmeticized surfaces in “The Devil Wears Prada” – was aiming for.

Feature: 12 Great Meryl Streep Performances

He didn’t count on Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. Did the gutsy co-stars of “Hope Springs” simply hijack Frankel’s safe little comedy of marital errors? Or did they force the fellow to rise to their level? Either way, this team’s tough, unglamorized performances power “Hope” way beyond the ho-hum territory of a slightly edgier “It’s Complicated.” Shout-out to Oscar: As an aging couple looking for love among the ruins, Streep and Jones are so good they could be auditioning for a softer, American version of “Scenes from a Marriage“, Ingmar Bergman’s classic dissection of marital life and strife.

But the stars can’t act away the movie’s tonal lurches and character U-turns. Segueing from soap opera to shockingly raw moments of emotional realism, from sexual slapstick to “In Treatment“-style therapeutic drama, “Hope” edges into deep waters, painful issues like growing old and lonely, the passing of physical beauty and youthful faith. But ultimately Frankel and the script chicken out, ditching challenging cargo in favor of a dash for the picture-pretty port of Feel Good.

Wedlocked for 31 years, Arnold’s a grumpy tax accountant and Kay’s a long-suffering housewife and mother. Evenings, he falls asleep watching golf tutorials on TV while she washes dinner dishes. As Kay puts it, only their house holds them together, though in separate bedrooms: Abysses of silence and indifference have come to divide these unexceptional 60-somethings.

For a while, “Hope” almost feels like sitcom territory, upscale Edith and Archie Bunker-land. So, primed for skin-deep comedy, we’re well and truly shocked by the brutality of Arnold’s overreaction when Kay suddenly announces she’s paid for a week’s worth of intensive couples therapy. Jones, no slouch as a hardcase, might be lashing an errant child or servant, so grating is his voice as he blames the little woman’s uncharacteristic assertiveness on “hormones,” and wonders how she got “access” to her CD.

The Soames’ marriage is far from a laughing matter. Neither is the lived-in flesh Streep and Jones expose to the camera’s unforgiving eye. When was the last time you saw stars from the Hollywood Dream Factory willing to go genuinely old(er) and dowdy and sexually gauche – like characters in a foreign film?

Every line and fold in Jones’ weathered face droops downward, echoed in the falling slope of his shoulders; it’s as though his body’s already halfway into the grave. Advertising fogeyhood, he wears sweater vests over short-sleeved polo shirts, carping incessantly about how much things cost. The carping comes down on his wife (and our ears) like hammer blows, driving the life out of her. And Streep, once the impeccable Miranda Priestly, achieves extreme frumpery. Over-permed hair hangs thinly around her tired face; when Kay removes her glasses, her nearsighted gaze seem dim and lost. Her body’s curves have disappeared into middle-aged chunkiness, accentuated by shapeless floral blouses and slacks.

When their marriage counselor assigns exercises in sensual touching and oral sex, the Soames’ rusty efforts are often more poignant than funny. Streep and Jones are in perfect sync, physically and emotionally, as they embody the awkwardness of aging flesh fearful of intimacy and unused to pleasure. The shy clumsiness with which these two “virgins” relearn how to touch each other makes us both want to look away – shouldn’t such naked moments be private? – and cheer them on in perfect human sympathy.

The narrative spine of “Hope Springs” is the couple’s sessions with a renowned and beloved therapist (Steve Carell) based in a twee Maine village (“Hansel and Gretel architecture,” Arnold sneers) whose jolly inhabitants all seem to be in on the doc’s healing gambits. As Doctor Feld, Carell’s a literal joy. A kind of tender humor has always warmed this cut-up’s dark gaze. In comedy, it signals devilish japery to come. Here, taking in his clients’ defensiveness and reticence (Kay: “I’m not comfortable with oral sex.” Doctor Feld: “Giving or receiving?” Kay: “What?”), that tenderness translates into existential embrace, a sweetly soulful smile that absolves fallible humans of shame and embarrassment.

Though falling short of what might have been, “Hope Springs” must still be recommended as superior entertainment for card-carrying grown-ups. This portrait of love on the downhill side of life is probably no country for young men and women, superhero fan boys and “Twilight“-ers. Still, who’s to say the kids wouldn’t benefit from a little therapeutic time-travel?


4 thoughts on ““Hope Springs” – New review by MSN

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