Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hope Springs: An acting storm in a narrative vacuum

Hope Springs (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, despite blunt sexual candor and sexuality
By Derrick Bang

As a movie, this is an odd experience.

The ritual is the same every morning: Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) comes
downstairs to a breakfast of two eggs and a single strip of bacon,
faithfully provided by his wife, Kay (Meryl Streep). He never talks to
her, instead burying his face in the daily newspaper. Her attempts at
actual conversation — forget about intimacy — are met with
bewildered indifference? And this is a marriage worth saving?
Vanessa Taylor’s plot is spare to the point of minimalism: Kay and Arnold, going through the motions of a loveless marriage, struggle to resurrect the original magic while seeing a celebrated couples’ counselor.

That’s it.

What this means, in practical terms, is that we spend nearly all of this 100-minute film watching Kay, reduced to almost helpless insecurity by years of neglect, as she attempts to survive her proximity to a grumpy, emotionally abusive husband. Not much fun.

But because these roles are played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, both superbly adept at subtle gestures and expressions that speak volumes, the result certainly is more interesting than would be the case with lesser performers. When speaking of our finest actors, I’ve occasionally confessed that I’d pay to watch them shop for groceries, because even that would be fascinating.

Well, at one point Kay and Arnold do shop for groceries, and Streep and Jones do turn it into a fabulous scene. No argument.

But the overall result, in sum, still feels more like an extended acting exercise than a feature-length film. Matters aren’t helped by director David Frankel’s pacing, which is deliberate and sluggish. His scene compositions are lackluster to the point of monotony, and he favors tight-tight-tight close-ups that quickly become tiresome.

We really don’t need to see every crease in Jones’ craggy features, nor does he need that sort of “cheating” to help sell a scene.

The story is restricted, almost entirely, to Kay, Arnold and Dr. Feld (Steve Carell, effectively modulated). Elisabeth Shue gets one quick scene as a cheerful bartender; Becky Ann Baker scores twice, as a tart-tongued waitress in a small-town diner; Jean Smart has two similarly brief moments as Kay’s best friend. The performers who play Kay and Arnold’s son, daughter and son-in-law register not at all; they’re practically blank slates during their quick appearances.

So we’re left strictly in the company of Kay and Arnold, collectively miserable both on their own, and during their mostly calm, uncomfortable and infrequently tempestuous therapy sessions with Dr. Feld. Is this enough to sustain a film? Perhaps; viewers sensitive to the chips and flaws in their own relationships may become emotionally invested in this journey toward awareness, sensitivity and healing. Others may find Hope Springs to be a yawning bore.

Kay and Arnold, years into their empty-nesting phase, have drifted so far apart that recovery seems unlikely. From the outside looking in, though, they seem the epitome of the American dream: a gorgeous house in an Omaha suburb, careers outside the home, grown children successfully raised. But Kay and Arnold share this house like office colleagues, not like husband and wife.

Arnold comes downstairs each morning to an unchanging breakfast of two eggs and bacon; he reads the paper while Kay, waiting for him to finish before eating herself, watches the weather channel on her small kitchen TV.

Arnold grabs his suitcase and clumps off to work, telling her — to the minute — what time he’ll be home. Every day, we’re led to assume, this routine repeats without variation. I simply can’t imagine what they do on weekends, when Arnold has no excuse to leave for eight hours.

They apparently never socialize. Kay has the one friend, at the upscale clothing store where she works; Arnold has one amiable colleague — I hesitate to call this guy a friend — at his office.

Each evening, Kay and Arnold eat a quiet dinner, sharing no idle chatter, and then he falls asleep watching the Golf Channel. He retires to a separate bedroom, a habit established — and then never broken — when he threw out his back years ago, and was forced to sleep alone for a bit.

Kay occupies the master bedroom by herself. Attempts at intimacy — we watch her build up the courage for just such a foray, as the film begins — are met with genuine bewilderment by Arnold.

And that, right there, soon becomes a problem. Arnold’s behavior is so self-absorbed and anti-social, that we can’t help wondering why he has slid into such a rut. As we quickly discover, he’s also an irascible bully, his displeasure with the universe conveyed in generalized rants — everything costs too much, people are no damn good, and so forth — that rain like physical blows on poor Kay, causing her to flinch.

Taylor’s script provides no back story, which gives us little cause for sympathy as Arnold’s attitude quickly escalates far past unforgiveable. It’s easy to believe that Kay would be much better off without him, as she has come to fear; we see the dismayed resignation in the expressive set of Streep’s features. Surrender is probably only one more thoughtless snub away.

But Kay still recalls happier times — we eventually learn of these — and decides that their relationship is worth fighting for, at least for one more round. She therefore drags Arnold, bitching all the way, to a week of sessions with Dr. Feld at his quiet office in bucolic Great Hope Springs, Maine.

These close encounters are raw and painfully real, with Frankel allowing uncomfortable silences to build to the point of agony. Our presence, as viewers, feels invasive; the fitful attempts at actual communication — Arnold radiating hostility — are shatteringly personal.

Even more intense, later, are Kay and Arnold’s clumsy efforts at sexual intimacy, depicted to a detailed degree that mocks this film’s PG-13 rating. It’s difficult to determine who is more embarrassed: Kay and Arnold, as they flail about, or us, as we witness the soul-shattering carnage.

But we're definitely invested in the process, because by this point, Streep and Jones have turned Kay and Arnold into complex, thoroughly compelling people, despite — indeed, because of — all their flaws.

We ache for Kay, her self-esteem buried so deeply that finding it seems beyond her ability. Streep’s hands flutter, her lips twitch into reflexive, false smiles that represent a game effort to conceal her shame from the world. Indeed, the fact that Kay does feel shamed, so frequently, is heartbreaking; this woman has no reason for such an insecure response.

Streep suppresses the strong, authoritative personality of so many previous film roles; she turns Kay into such a fragile, frightened bird that we fear one sharp blow would shatter her, like glass, into thousands of pieces that never could be put back together.

Jones has a tougher assignment: to keep Arnold somehow sympathetic — to us — while being such a mean, cranky curmudgeon. Impressively, Jones succeeds, at least partly, his sour expressions and slouchy approach to the world — watch how he walks out of a room — both amusing and subtly intimidating. But I’m not persuaded that Jones allows Arnold to reveal enough of the kinder, gentler man with whom Kay originally fell in love.

Much of Arnold’s behavior, and his snarling diatribes, are held up for ridicule; Jones makes these outbursts funny, in many cases, because this guy is such a grouch that we can’t help laughing ... at him, certainly not with him. He’s simply too pathetic for words.

At other times, though, Arnold’s eruptions — and Jones’ delivery of same — are inexcusably mean, even scary. Not the slightest bit amusing.

Jones seethes with fury and anxiety, the latter surfacing when forced to acknowledge and confront his feelings during the therapy sessions. This is not a 21st century guy, at one with his inner self; he’s more a throwback to the Cro-Magnon era, when men could hunker down in caves and brood in silence.

Taylor deserves credit for the complexity of her dialogue, and the degree to which it illuminates and informs Kay and Arnold: depicting inter-personal tragedy while allowing unexpected bursts of humor. We laugh because we must; it’s essential to find relief amidst so much emotional catastrophe.

But do I buy where this angst-ridden journey eventually leads? Absolutely not. Were “Hope Springs” a stage play — and, more often than not, it feels like one — its tone, atmosphere and approach would demand an outcome that Frankel and Taylor lack the bravery to embrace.

Instead, we depart the theater oddly dissatisfied, wondering if the abrupt resolution — unfolding mostly during the film’s end credits — has been worth the investment, even allowing for the mesmerizing, breathtakingly subtle work by Streep and Jones.

Probably not.

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