Friday, September 21, 2012

It Takes Two: Hope Springs

Last week I saw a profound film with a clearly stated message, a dialogue-driven script and three incredibly natural performances. I'm as surprised as you are that the film was Hope Springs.

The movie is about a couple that has recently celebrated their 31st anniversary but found themselves in an entirely loveless marriage. The wife, Kay (Meryl Streep), signs up her and her husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) for a weeklong therapy session in Maine. As the film unfolds, we see their bumpy road to recovery. But is it too little too late? A palpable suspense resides throughout.

Frankly sexual and even-handed in its gender battles, Hope Springs is one of the bolder studio films released this year. Yes, there are several scenes that are excruciatingly bad (office banter with Lee Jones' co-worker, Elizabeth Shue playing a world-weary bartender) and the name of the town they visit is Hope Springs (ugh!). But these clunkers are contrasted with scenes of such wisdom and patience that they must be by-products of the filmmakers having to keep the studio happy. Such sacrifices were worth it to afford such starkly realistic scenes elsewhere.

The plot plods along at a casual pace and much of the dialogue is didactic, but the film sticks to its guns throughout. This is no smooth, montage-fueled romcom. This is a labored look at what it takes to sustain a marriage. It's clear that there are no shortcuts.

Anchored by three powerfully affecting performances, many scenes play out like direct-to-viewer counseling. I'd be tempted to prescribe this movie as an early step toward marriage counseling. I'm not sure if a licensed therapist would agree with me – surely the film takes a lot of liberties – but Hollywood can be a powerful medium and it's heartening to see a film like this use its platform to inspire.

If any of the three central performances hit a single false note, the film would fall apart. But each one succeeds magnificently. Jones and Streep both create rich, nuanced characters. Steve Carell has a very difficult role to pull off as their therapist. Not only must he combat the audience expectations of his comedic persona, he also has to serve the role of authority and wisdom while sharing the screen with two of the most celebrated authorities on acting. I imagine he must have been scared out of his mind having to go toe to toe with these acting legends. But he does it with unblinking confidence.

Hope Springs may be about 50+ characters but anyone who puts value in a romantic relationship should see this movie. It doesn't matter if you have been married more than 30 years or if you just started dating, the movie presents a core fundamental that is universal: nothing is perfect, there are two sides to every story and the only way to be happy requires both partners to put in an equal amount of work. Hope Springs doesn't have all the answers. But it believes it has some.