What’s scarier than zombies and vampires? The new Meryl Streep horror film, Hope Springs, which is about your parents’ sex life! Ugh! Not since David Cronenberg’s Videodrome have I had to watch as much of a movie through my fingers. I’d like to go on record as saying that my father does not do those things to my mother, and that my mother has a very innocent relationship with bananas. Let’s proceed.
The acting is sensational and what did you expect? Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are both playing very ordinary people, people you might have living across the street from you, people you might see across the table at your next family dinner. But they don’t waste their time with that. They play them like fully rounded characters with rich inner lives and contradictions and longings and wounds. What’s doubly amazing is that they are doing this with very little help from the script. This ain’t Eugene O’Neill. They are both moving and funny. You feel for them and at other times you want to slap them. Is the film a bit biased toward the woman-side of the couple? Yes. But Jones isn’t going down without a fight, even though he’s up against the most technically astonishing actress in screen history. He fills the limited dimensions he’s given with guts. The simple pain in his eyes is a match for the complicated symphony of nervous, twitchy, self-edited giggles bursting forth from the virtuoso. In fact, that contrast between their acting styles doesn’t even feel like that—it feels like the contrast between the emotional lives of the characters, the contrast between straight men of a certain age and straight women of a certain age. The casting is probably the best choice the director made.
Unfortunately, it might be the only good choice the director made. Bah! Is this thing pedestrian! The comedy is flattened with slow pacing. The drama is flattened with an unsteady hold. The beauty of the setting in Maine is spoiled by the horrible framing of the camerawork. And the music is appalling. Even when it’s good! I mean Annie Lennox’s “Why” comes on the soundtrack and I was reminded what a completely gorgeous slice of pop music heaven that song is. But it’s the wrong song at the wrong time. The soundtrack seems to be like somebody left their ’80s lovesong playlist on random shuffle. The director’s so tone deaf he didn’t hear it. You can tell he’s tone deaf when Steve Carell’s character comes on.
Carell plays the marriage therapist. He’s no actor. He’s a perfectly charming movie star. But here he’s awful. The director has no feeling for the fact that this guy is a person and a character and a professional as well. He’s the worst therapist ever, but that would be okay if he felt real, or at least interesting. I can’t imagine how much better this movie would have been without this guy at the helm, and I would love to see the raw footage that might reveal the actors’ through-lines. Here they are chopped up nonsensically. There are a few arcs that don’t get realized. For example, they seem to be building for an epiphany for the husband character that never arrives. I can’t imagine how sad the actors must have been viewing the finished product. It would have been better to let Jones and Streep improvise with a real marriage therapist, like Sue Johnson, who’s a character and a half herself—in the theater, so the directors couldn’t muck it up in the editing.
Which brings us to the other central problem: the problem of the script. There’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before. It’s Mars/Venus without the subtlety. Good lord, though, do the actors do a fine job of making these characters utterly unique! Because the script itself is so generic it could have been improvised by accountants taking a psych 101 course doing a half-ass job of their class presentation on communication problems. Couldn’t there have been a script doctor? Or two? Someone to make it real. Someone to make it funny. I never in the world thought I’d be longing for the Alexander Payne touch.
Is it worth seeing? Absolutely! This sort of thing is important. We don’t need another explosion movie. We need some more films willing to explore middle age. After all, there are more and more of us in that stage of life. But balls—the director and the writer haven’t anything interesting to say about the topics of love and ageing and sex! Thank goodness the actors have more than the film can contain! They are bursting with carefully observed and passionately presented humanity. It’s almost like Streep and Jones wandered in from a European film! (Those Europeans do this sort of thing well. If only this had been written and directed by Agnès Jaoui!) They wandered in and landed on a particularly dull episode of The Love Boat—the two of them washed ashore at a New England couple’s therapy retreat after Captain Stubing and crew drowned at sea. Only less deep.
But should there be movies about something as slow-paced as therapy? Sure—look at the fascinating takes on talk therapy in recent TV series: The Sopranos, The Newsroom, In Treatment (especially the Diane Wiest parts). I wish somebody would film Irving Yalom’s novels. Should there be movies about people bettering themselves? Sure—it doesn’t have to be suck-ass sentimental. The recent film Ruby Sparks is a good example of how gritty and dark an essentially feel-good relationship movie can be (and it had the best therapy scenes in a movie I’ve ever seen. More Elliot Gould please. He seems to be getting better.)
Is Hope Springs even a movie about therapy helping people get more satisfying lives? It’s trying to be, so I give it props. But tiny props, because my cynical side thinks the makers of the movie weren’t really interested in the real lives of ordinary people trying to do better, but rather in patching together something quickly to capitalize on the recent discovery of middle-aged women’s sexuality, thanks to explorer/anthropologist Shades Grey. Most likely we’ll see Diane Keaton spit-roasted in her next rom-com with a brooding Harrison Ford in chaps on one end and a domineering Joe Pesci threatening her nipples with a cigar on the other. Until then we have Streep and Jones in several scenes of fellatio interruptus that the actors manage to make believable and moving in different ways each time. That miracle alone is worth the price of admission. Take your mom. She’ll love it.