Hope Springs (**½)

There’s a lot of talent on the screen in ‘Hope Springs’, and for the most part they try their best to make a good impression, but this film is so mediocrely scripted and often indifferently directed that they can’t manage to make any difference. Meryl Streep is very good (but no, not Oscar worthy, so quiet with that for at least one year), Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly casted, and Steve Carrell was a fine choice as well,but they’re constantly let down…and so are we. To be fair, this isn’t a bad film, and there’s some humor to be found and a low key pleasure in watching two older masters of the craft play off of each other in a homey sort of way, but it just doesn’t add up to enough. Director David Frankel (working again with Streep after their success on ‘The Devil Wears Prada’) lets them have their fun, but he doesn’t add anything to the picture, and scribe Vanessa Taylor thinks she’s being more creative than she is. The film opens this coming wednesday, and while I’m not recommending it, I will admit to softening my feelings a bit on it since initially seeing it last week and not caring for it one bit. I still don’t especially like it, but this romantic dramedy will certainly appeal to its fair share of people and isn’t a painful theatrical experience. I’d expect very solid business this weekend from the film.

The story revolves around the now unhappy marriage of Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones). They’ve been married for over 30 years, with 2 grown kids, and the spark is clearly gone. They now sleep in separate rooms and Kay feels that Arnold no longer appreciates her in any real way. Arnold thinks that Kay is making a fuss over nothing considering how well oiled the machine that is their union is, especially when she proposes spending a week in Great Hope Springs (there’s your title for you right there), undergoing intensive couples counseling with the highly regarded Dr. Feld (Carell). It’s a scam in Arnold’s eyes, but when Kay makes it clear that this is what she wants, he relents and joins her, complaining all the way from Nebraska to Maine. Under Dr. Feld’s supervision, they begin to take on intimacy exercises while also talking about what’s at the root of their issues. Despite it initially being all about Kay’s concerns and Arnold just wanting to go home, it soon comes out that Arnold has some quibbles of his own and Kay may be more at fault here than she’d have ever thought, especially when Feld gets into their sexual past and current desires. Despite all that, they obviously still love each other and move forward taking the steps necessary to be a happy couple again. It’s a pretty standard trajectory for the plot, to be honest…and rather predictable too.

Meryl Streep does pretty nice work here, but like I said above it’s likely not Oscar’s cup of tea. She deftly mixed comedy and drama, sometimes even in the same scene. She gets a decent amount of mileage out of her character’s trouble with oral sex (a big plot point, if you can believe it), but obviously has no trouble with the emotional highs and lows of Kay as well. I don’t think it’ll go down as one of her best performances ever, but I enjoyed it more than anything she’s done in the last couple of years (admittedly not saying too much in my eyes). For me, the notable performance here is Tommy Lee Jones, who has a more natural character arc and a more complex character to play. Arnold is in many ways a traditional man, and how he dealt with the evolution of his marriage is likely not an uncommon outcome in the real world. There’s an amusing quality to his curmudgeonly ways, but he really does nail the deeper moments for the character. Obviously watching them play off of each other is entertaining, and the chemistry is there. I just wish they were given more to do. Speaking of which, the rest of the cast is wasted, to varying degrees. Steve Carell is good in his supporting role, but he’s more just a plot device than anything else, which is a shame. I’d have loved more scenes with him, but that wasn’t to be. Elisabeth Shue literally is in one scene, which is tremendously disappointing, and the rest of the cast (including Jean Smart, Mimi Rogers, Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, and Damian Young) gets no time to shine either. This is obviously all about Streep and Jones.

Director David Frankel mostly is content to just let the stars go at it, and while that creates some low wattage charm, it prevents the film from being anything special. He ignores all other characters in the film, lets the movie develop at a snail’s pace, and is too reliant on an underwhelming script by Vanessa Taylor. I think Frankel is a talented filmmaker, but between this and ‘The Big Year’, he’s in a bit of a slump. Taylor is working with a well worn story, and she isn’t able to add anything new to the world. There are a few cute lines and an obligatory happy ending, but things too often go around in a circle. Surprisingly little actually happens here, and you may end up checking your watch more than once.

‘Hope Springs’ will definitely work for Meryl Streep fans and the older female audience that loves this sort of counter-programming (or those who love Tommy Lee Jones when he doesn’t have a gun in his hands), but it may be a bit too slight for anyone else (especially fans of Steve Carell). I warmed up to it slightly in the time between seeing the film at my press screening and finishing this review, but I still can’t recommend it. You pretty much already know if you want to see it this weekend, so I doubt my Early Review will do much, but this is my two cents anyhow. You can certainly do better than this flick, but honestly you can do worse too, so decide for yourself…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!