In a genre continuously spewing out specimens, most of which are as indistinguishable from each other as they are distinguishable from reality, the romantic comedy feature Hope Springs is an anomaly worth paying attention to. It is unfortunate that it bears the same title as a 2003 Hope Springs rom-com that received a paltry 25% on Rotten Tomatoes (from a pool of a mere 12 reviewers), and that search engines work rather bizarrely and keep dredging up the older movie. Because the new and unrelated film, released last Wednesday, currently holds a 78% on RT (from a pool of 100 critics). It is a chamber piece scripted by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Frankel, and revolves around three characters: a couple married 31 years, played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, and their counselor Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell). The film also seems to have the famous sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s endorsement.
But despite its aging romantic leads and the support of an 84-year old psychiatrist, Hope Springs is far from old-fashioned or ‘retiring’. On the contrary, it is refreshingly bold and ahead of the pack in several ways. For one, it presents a female character who actually states what she needs, not just once but as often as it takes, and despite intimidating obstacles (her husband’s attitudes, primarily). And she doesn’t have to be a writhing nympho or a ball-breaking action heroine to do it. She’s quite ordinary, a conventionally-dressing wife and mom of ‘a certain age’, and she’s led a pretty timid life. But the problems in her marriage have reached their zenith, and she’s fed up.
Moreover, Kay and Arnold and Dr. Feld don’t just speak in vague, inoffensive generalities about ‘Love’ the way characters do in most ‘chick flicks’ that are not Sex and the City. They get quite technical – but in a way that is always related to how the characters feel about their sexuality. Unlike the raunch-comedy genre, that’s meant to make you laugh at dick jokes and gross-out humor by making you think “how outrageous!” and “how badly those bros behave!”, Hope Springs scores its points by being honest about the characters’ moments of dismay, embarrassment, and insecurity.
Most unusual of all, it’s a movie with romantic leads who are well beyond middle age. They even have several (PG-13) sex scenes. One of which is actually female masturbation! Kudos to Meryl Streep, I say. Both Streep and Jones know that these scenes are probably not going to go viral as erotic videoclips. Their attraction to the material — and Streep attached herself to it early on, before it had backing – was probably because, as the superb character actors that they are, they could recognize a revealing investigation of human behavior when they saw one. The fact that it’s a facet of human behavior overlooked in an age group that Hollywood all but puts out on an ice floe and sends out to sea was probably impossible to resist.
Now, Hope Springs is unmistakably a mainstream film and a comedy. There’s no chance of confusing it with a raw, harrowing, dysfunctional-relationship drama like Blue Valentine, Closer, or We Don’t Live Here Anymore. Arnold and Kay are not themselves sick, even if their marriage is ailing — their normalcy, and the lack of shame in seeking counseling, is part of the message of the movie. Yes, you can see where it’s headed from the outset: just as the late Nora Ephron’s script for When Harry Met Sally signaled from the initial meet-cute scene that the dramatic question to be solved would be “Can men and women be friends?”, Hope Springs lets the viewer know almost immediately that it will be organized around the question “Can marriages change?” And we’re not exactly astonished when we can predict the answer.
But the assurance this movie takes from knowing what it’s about is palpable. This is screenwriter Taylor’s first produced feature and according to her it took some revising by her — and advising from others — to pare the script down so cleanly to just the nuts and bolts of the principals’ relationship. Though rom-coms are frequently buoyed by quirky supportive characters, this one features only a handful of day-players with just a couple of lines each; the film has a laser focus on its triumvirate of star leads and on its therapy and make-out sessions. This streamlining and Frankel’s succinct, unfussy direction pay off.
The high-powered cast invests emotionally despite the discomfort. Jones is not afraid to wallow in his character’s locked-in curmudgeonly-ness; weaker actors shy away from alienating an audience, but Jones is on Arnold’s side, like a good actor should be. Streep, who worked under Frankel’s direction before on The Devil Wears Prada, has plumbed the kind of woman that Kay is and internalized what makes her tick. (Hint: it’s very different from what made her last film role, Margaret Thatcher, tick.) Carrell – who long ago proved that a background in parody or satire doesn’t necessarily limit a comedian to oversized performances – is excellent at listening and cogitating, saying much with the flicker of an eyelid or the corner of a smile.
In a Q & A, Taylor explained the genesis of the script. Though she is only in her 30’s, she was writing about something with strong personal meaning for her, not specifically to pay tribute to an older generation but because she wanted to write about difficulties with intimacy and she saw how the challenges that any couple can face would be especially magnified with age.
Kay and Arnold’s issue, an enormous distance that has opened in their marriage, is one that a couple could experience at any age. Though Viagra, flab, and wrinkles are mentioned, the real issue is they’ve stopped communicating. In fact, as they limp painfully over the threshold of a real relationship, they discover there were some pretty fundamental things they had never communicated about in the first place.
For years, writing instructors have told their students to “write what you know.” Taylor has demonstrated that the adage can be phrased another way: “write what you feel.”
The packed screening I attended in Los Angeles was very eclectic in terms of age, gender, and race – only about 10% looked to be seniors – and yet the auditorium repeatedly erupted in gales of uproarious laughter over the tiniest line readings, gestures, or facial expressions. I think this shows that Hope Springs is going to be able to transcend the senior-discount demographic and find a general audience, even though there are quite a few people who have a knee-jerk prejudice against entertainment they perceive as geared to the blue-rinse set, to cite a pejorative term. Unfortunately, even some of the staunchest of liberals, concerned about homophobia, racism, sexism, anti-semitism, classism, and even speciesism, haven’t yet added ageism to their list. Part of that bias may derive from observable trends like older voters skewing Republican and socially conservative. But it is also likely to stem from the overall influence of a consumerist, high-tech, disposable culture which constantly equates newer with better.
Hope Springs opens a crack in that mentality. The film is a clear and healthy reminder that everyone is interested in sex. Without being preachy, this rom-com can make you realize how Hollywood’s emphasis on youth, high cheekbones, and well-defined abs keeps everybody down – even those who manage to fill the bill.