Some critics used to separate “films” from “movies.” Hope Springs is a movie; it’s mainstream and entertaining, with no aspirations to art. It’s solid as a film, hysterically funny at times, and painfully uncomfortable at other times. The direction is craftsmanlike and unoriginal, which works here. The entire worth of the picture is the script and the performances, and the three performers get their medals—one bronze, one silver and one gold. If this movie is going to be remembered at all, it will be because of the subject matter and its central performances.
The bronze goes to Steve Carell as a marriage therapist. We have to like his character in the film, and because of the casting, we do. It’s a good career move for the comedian, as he touches down delicately onto his character, exhibiting the tricks of the therapist’s trade without sending them up or without this character seeming as if he’s just going through the motions. It’s a stretch only in its gentle consistency, something we don’t normally associate with Carell.
The silver goes to Meryl Streep as the wife in a marriage gone cold who is willing to go to great lengths to revitalize it. Streep is simply the greatest American film actress and it’s easy to see the career step being taken here. After playing huge or intensely precise characters (think Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady and the editor in The Devil Wears Prada), Streep occasionally likes to play something closer to “real people.” The good news is that watching her and Tommy Lee Jones as her husband is a master’s class in film acting. Streep is funny, sad, even heartbreaking at times, but I was almost always watching a great actress working with her character, and even caught her acting at times.
It’s hard to play someone not as intelligent as you are as an actor, and Streep has to do that here. (See Bruce Willis in this year’s Moonrise Kingdom to see someone pull that off well.) Streep also has as much authority on screen as Russell Crowe, so playing someone just beginning to discover her personal authority is perhaps a bit beyond the actress. And there is a constant tension between the precision of Streep’s acting choices and her technique, and the fuzzy, half-thought-through life of her character. Some of this is performance, not acting. But the performance, especially by the grande dame of American cinema, accounts for a great deal of the fun. She’s the heart of the film, and her character and the spectacle of seeing the great Streep playing a relatable person, a “normal” person, is what draws the viewer in.
The gold here goes to Tommy Lee Jones, who settles into his character in a way that Streep doesn’t. If Streep is the heart of the film, he is the nearly immovable rock. Jones’ character is grumpy in alternately funny and offensive ways, and his slow progress emotionally is realistic and hard to watch. But he disappears into his character, making his actions all the more frustrating and sad. He adds the gravitas that the movie trailer doesn’t even hint at, and which makes the film richer and deeper than the viewer might be prepared for.
Apart from the performances, it’s the subject matter that makes the film and sets it apart. This is a study of a marriage that’s just “fine” for one but not for the other. Nearly all mature married people will find themselves laughing one moment and feeling deeply exposed the next. The last time the screen demonstrated the realities of a flawed mature marriage so fully, it might well have had a directing credit by Ingmar Bergman. But unlike an intense Swedish film, this very American movie has a great deal of humor and ultimately, hope. It’s not superficial or simplistic in its explorations of a union that’s lost its fire and intimacy, and that makes its victories that much more deeply felt. It’s ultimately a comedy, to be sure, but hits a number of uncomfortable truths along the way.
Spoiler alert: I’m not going to give away major plot points, but have to note to the unsuspecting viewer looking for a simple and delightful marital comedy that la Streep engages in a variety of sexual expressions that help break her image, but might be a bit disconcerting for the viewer—both for what’s happening and who is doing it. There is also a minor plot point that seems to be somewhat important that is never followed up on; one wonders what might have been left on the cutting room floor.
Hope Rises is a pedestrian film in terms of production, yet with a king and queen of American acting in the leads. It does plow a little new ground in setting some especially painful human difficulties in the midst of its exploration of a marriage in need of repair. But for those weary of superhero movies, violence and the supernatural, it’s a refreshingly human comedy that just happens to include some embarrassing, awkward, and recognizable moments for adults.