|'An early montage of Streep is horrible and it is followed, occasionally, by toothless musical choices that are on-the-nose, as in: 'punch-you-on-the-nose-if-that-stops-you-singing-this-horrible-dirge'.'|
Can you have a film that features Steve Carell playing a marriage guidance counsellor and not have that character become the focus of the piece? Such becomes the question at the heart of Hope Springs, an amiable Comedy-Drama that sees out-of-love Meryl Streep carting Tommy Lee 'Grumpy Cat' Jones off to Carell's sleepy seaside idyll of mended marriage and clam chowder.
The answer (which is yes... just about) reveals itself over the course of a narrative that feels very much like it could have been a theatre production and thus manages to avoid several well-trodden Hollywood paths. As Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) storm off separately from a predictable early argument, she finds herself in a bar, he in a museum. Served by a very-understanding Elisabeth Shue, there's a hint that Kay might be about to leave with a new best friend or, worse, some companionship this 'friend' sets up for her. Nope. It's the last we see of Shue, a minute interaction like those that happen in 'real life', the focus firmly back on Streep and Jones and their attempts to heal.
This leads to Hope Springs becoming, for quite a long period, a tightly wound actor's piece. Jones, Streep and Carell share several sessions in his fashionable 'surgery', working through problems, handing out homework, discussing frankly, reluctantly, the issues around their non-existent sex life. At times it might make you squirm, but the very human healing going on here is easy to relate to and the problems the kinds of non-drastic things that getter under your skin to a critical degree.
The characters painted by the two leads, given such time and space by David Frankel, emerge too as interesting, three-dimensional, entities. Kay is clearly presented as the victim of Arnold's gruff masculinity. By the finale, the latter might not be redeemed in many eyes. He's an occasionally bullying supremacist, a misogynist who fails to show Kay any sort of kindness until the third act. Kay meanwhile, throws herself into the therapy sessions with commitment but as soon as she hits a part of it she doesn't want to take part in, she's out. The screenwriter, Vanessa Taylor, gets a nice duality here, only slightly marred by the fact that the action in question is oral sex, whereas Arnold wants out of everything, constantly.
Frankel's rap sheet sports such previous bland-to-awful efforts as The Big Year and Marley And Me and occasionally the artistic values from those films start to seep in where they have no place doing so. An early montage of Streep is horrible and it is followed, occasionally, by toothless musical choices that are on-the-nose, as in: 'punch-you-on-the-nose-if-that-stops-you-singing-this-horrible-dirge'. 'I won't be your lady', warbles someone, as Streep walks away from Jones in tears and mass walkouts happen in cinemas everywhere.
Such moments are a shame, because with a little more craft, this could have been even better than it is. Star vehicles with this much performance scope don't come around often enough.