August 16, 2012

MOVIES: Hope Springs (David Frankel, 2012)

Hope Springs is not the light, bouncy comedy that the advertising has worked very hard to suggest. Instead, it's a fairly somber drama about a marriage of quiet desperation, and the attempt of two people in their 50s to restore sexual intimacy to their relationship.

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are Kay and Arnold, an Omaha couple who've just celebrated their 31st anniversary. He's an accountant; she's a housewife (and as retro as the word is, it's the only one that fits). Their days fall into a predictable rut, from her cooking his breakfast (one egg, one strip of bacon) to him falling asleep in front of the golf channel. They haven't had sex in at least four or five years -- neither of them can remember exactly -- and haven't shared a bedroom for longer than that.

Kay has reached her breaking point, and signs up for an intensive couples counseling session, for which she and Arnold will have to go to Maine; he reluctantly joins her, and they begin their work with Dr. Feld (Steve Carell).

Streep is particularly good here. Kay is a woman used to being in the background, to not being noticed. Her voice is quiet and breathy; her gestures small and tentative; when she nods or shakes "no" in response to Dr. Feld's questions, the motion is barely noticeable. She's frustrated by the slow death of their marriage, and even more, she's hurt by Arnold's unwillingness to admit that anything is wrong.

Carell is the movie's weak spot. He's completely gotten rid of the smirking irony that is his usual strong suit, and he's right to have done so, but he hasn't quite figured out what to do in its place. All we're left with is bland sincerity in search of a personality.

It's a good movie, not a great one, and Jones does struggle a bit in the movie's more broadly comic moments. But a movie like this -- a thoughtful, reasonably intelligent drama about the sex lives of middle-aged married people -- is such an anomaly for contemporary Hollywood that I almost feel obliged to encourage you to see it in theaters, if only in the hope that success will encourage the studios to produce others like it.

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