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Non-Review Review: Hope Springs

Hope Springs is a fairly unambitious romantic comedy that is very clearly chasing the silver dollar. Featuring two veteran performers playing a couple struggling through a mid-life crisis, Hope Springs feels like an attempt to demonstrate that the careers of romantic leads don’t necessarily end at forty. It is, on that level, quite pleasing to watch – there’s a proud sense that David Frankel is refusing to leave hum-drum romantic comedy to young actors who seem barely out of puberty. However, the problem is inherent in the premise. Hope Springsproves that romantic comedies aren’t exclusive to younger casts, but it also demonstrates tat very few of the familiar quirks, conceits and plot devices are that much more endearing when delivered by actors old enough to remember a world before mobile telephones.

Well, they’ve made their bed…

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play a married couple attending couple’s counselling to work out the issues in their marriage. Of course, neither character is really more than a broadly drawn template pulled from a wealth of genre predecessors. Meryl Streep plays a beaten-down middle-aged woman who has allowed any hint of joy or excitement to evaporate from her life. Tommy Lee Jones plays a frugal accountant who has everything analysed past the point where fun can exist. (He literally spends his lunch calculating the profit margins of the local restaurants pricing source materials.)

To be fair, this is no greater a problem here than in any other romantic comedy, but Streep and Jones both seem a bit wasted in their roles. I’d argue the pair are among the finest actors of their generation. They are certainly far better than most modern romantic leads. However, while neither is particularly bad, the pair don’t get to breathe life into their characters. For most of the runtime, they feel like they are playing poorly-developed and easily-recognisable clichés. To be fair, they occasionally get us to invest in the characters more than we might expect – to the point where the stereotypical third act feels a lot more emotive than it really should.

A couple of kooks, caught up in romance…

The film is still rigidly structured to conform to the archetypal mainstream romantic comedy. There are no real surprises in the arc that the film follows, and there’s never a sense of worry about the fates of our two leads. We know how the movie will end before its begun, and we can guess the hoops that the characters will have to jump through. In fact, a viewer can accurately predict the scene playing over the end credits based on an early line of dialogue that might as well be written in neon.

Streep isn’t on top form here, but she still makes the most of the script. The actress seems to be very clearly pantomiming at certain points, and seems to stare out of the fourth wall directly at the audience, as if trying to tell us how we should feel at a moment. She’s smiling at us! So we’re happy! She’s looking sad at us!So we’re sad! Streep seems rather consciously aware of the camera in a way that could easily become irritating and would undermine a more serious film, but it instead seems to demonstrate she’s enjoying herself.

The food of love?

Streep has done a large number of roles in recent years aimed at proving that a woman of her age should not be confined to “prestige” pictures. Films like Mamma Mia and It’s Complicated demonstrate that she’s still capable of playing a romantic lead at an age where most actresses are lucky to snag the role of the mother-in-law. That’s actually quite great – and it is something that’s worth encouraging. I only wish that the quality of the films themselves were better – that Streep was starring in a grown up version of (500) Days of Summer rather than The Bounty Hunter.

Streep and Jones do considerably better than Steve Carrell, who is drafted in to play their marriage councillor. The problem is that he is really just playing a plot device rather than a character in his own right. His therapist feels like the sort of bland individuals that Carrell usually plays, but without any of the actor’s madcap energy. There’s a sense that anybody could play the role just as well, and Carrell hasn’t been drafted in because of any particular talent or skill, simply because the filmmakers needed a third name on the poster.

Talking heads…

I do like that the film deals with the idea that old people have sex. After all, there are far too few films exploring the idea that life doesn’t end at fifty – and fewer still that suggest that life can be as fulfilling, satisfying and engaging past that point. It’s great to see a film with two older leads touching on the idea of a healthy sex life. The problem is that Hope Springs is fixated on it. It goes into the sort of detail that would be uncomfortable in a romantic comedy with leads half the age of the performers here.

The point is romance is romance whether done at thirty or sixty. But uncomfortable is also uncomfortable no matter what the age of those involved. Any of the more cringe-worthy scenes here would be cringe-worthy featuring Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston. Hope Springs very barely gets away with it because Streep actually maintains a rare poise in the most awkward of sequences. The movie never seems especially interested in the romantic lives of its lead characters, which is perhaps my biggest problem with it. It’s far more fixated with the superficial aspects of their dynamic. (That said, it is worth the price of admission to hear Tommy Lee Jones complain that Meryl Streep’s caresses feel like she’s “petting the dog.”)

Getting down on bended knees…

Sex is a focus, but so is money. The implication is that emotional intimacy flows from those two, but it feels a little awkward. Everything that Jones does to show his interest in his wife is shown to be material in nature. Early on, he buys her flowers and jewellery by way of apology. The couple stay at the EconoLodge and his cheap nature is shown to grate on her, as he pinches pennies on the food around the small community. His grand romantic gesture involves splurging on a whole host of material touches. Later on, taking on board criticism, he promises to “watch less golf” and to buy her “nice things that have nothing to do with the house” – like jewellery.

He does mention emotional intimacy later on, but it seems like his priorities are a bit skewed. Don’t get me wrong – being willing to spend his money on things that make the pair of them happy is undoubtedly a good thing. However, the movie seems to emphasise that as one of the core problems at the heart of their relationship. He’s emotionally closed off, but he’s also cheap. It feels like a bit of a cop-out for the movie to place so much emphasis on the latter while breezing over the former.

The comedy’s a bit too by-the-book…

The movie does touch on this idea towards the end, where it galvinises into a strong film, but it feels a little bit too late. It doesn’t help that the movie’s inevitable resolution seems relatively simple and trite – that it doesn’t seem to come from anywhere except the fact that the runtime is running out. It’s a bit of a shame, as the movie actually works quite well when Streep and Jones actually get to play off one another in an emotional manner.

Still, Hope Springs is reasonably diverting. It’s a competently made romantic comedy, with two adequate performances from two great actors. It’s never quite as good as it should be – and it’s too shallow and too convenient for its own good – but it’s not a bad film when taken on its own terms.

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7 Responses

  1. Interesting review. I’ve seen enough reviews of this film, but here’s an good article about Hope Springs in real life: http://cop-a-squat.com/2012/08/31/from-hope-springs-love/

  2. If you’re looking to review a romantic drama, Bright Star would be an interesting one to see on at m0vie! Apparently Jane Campion insisted that they use his theory of negative capability as a guide to filming the whole thing. You can see it when you watch it – it’s an even softer approach than the usual period drama style. Bradshaw’s soundtrack fits right in there too – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvmqOUZyJqM

  3. Oh, and I should have mentioned the most important thing about the film, which is – John Keats!

  4. I went over it lightly because I was afraid of spoilers cause I plan to watch this movie for sure. It’s Complicated was refreshing but it is the area where Nancy Meyers just seems to succeed, interesting to see if other can do it as well.

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