"Hope" Springs But Mostly Taxis On Runway

If you’re a Hollywood producer and you need a curmudgeon for your film, you call Tommy Lee Jones. Nobody does it better. Tommy Lee Jones is your man until he turns you down. From his Oscar-winning turn as a grumpy US Marshal in “The Fugitive” to his most recent reprisal of the ornery MIB agent, Kay, in “Men In Black III,” Jones has the market cornered on cranky-older-gentleman roles. Sorry, Mr. Eastwood. Dirty Harry at his dirtiest isn’t nearly as frightening as a stare down with Tommy Lee Jones. He’s the only actor on the planet that can incite an actively uncomfortable feeling in an audience just by smiling. His smile seems wrong, like tectonic plates shifting beneath your feet.

Meryl Streep, on the other hand, is one of cinema’s great chameleons. Unlike Jones (who is absolutely great at what he does), Streep can transform herself from conservative Sister and principal of a Catholic school (“Doubt”) to famous chef, Julia Child (“Julie & Julia”), to Margaret Thatcher (“The Iron Lady”) in the span of three years – and get Oscar nominations for all three (winning for the latter). Both Streep and Jones are notoriously picky with their roles, and in that light, “Hope Springs” is a letdown. It’s a watchable marriage-on-the-rocks drama, but only because of the star power of its leads.

The two play a couple (Arnold and Kay), celebrating their 31st wedding anniversary, whose marriage is slowly crumbling. They reside on separate ends of their house, rarely talk about anything meaningful, and follow the same dull routine everyday, a point that director David Frankel absolutely hammers home. Again and again. In fact, the direction and cinematography are awkward to the point that the pattern of wide shot, medium close-up, wide-shot becomes tiresome. The aforementioned “routine” sequences are choreographed to capture the inanity of Arnold’s and Kay’s lives, except when the camera is placed differently from one instance to the next. The handful of musical montages are even more slack, not to mention some abysmal song selections.

Visual issues aside – and visuals aren’t the emphasis here – Tommy Lee Jones carries the picture. His character is pigeonholed as a mean, old bully who likes the Golf Channel more than he likes his wife, but Jones is able to transcend the words on the page and add layers to Arnold that other actors wouldn’t dream of. Streep acquits herself well, as always, but Kay is too cloying and inauthentic to be entirely believable. It’s a stretch to see Meryl Streep clumsily hanging sweaters at Coldwater Creek. But ultimately, Arnold is painted as a grouch and Kay is drawn as a saint, so it’s remarkable that Jones and Streep are able to add as much depth to their roles as they do.

Steve Carell delivers a nice supporting performance as Dr. Feld, an author and marital counselor, whom Arnold and Kay fly to Maine to see. Unfortunately, his character only confuses the drama of the piece, as he equates their rocky marriage to a lack of sex. While intimacy is obviously a part of the problem, large portions of the film turn into sessions of frank sex talk (some of which is pretty weighty for a PG-13 rating) and the narrative takes a back seat to cheap laughs – although, a few hit their mark. Dr. Feld speaks almost exclusively about physicality, but other aspects of the relationship are left unmentioned, almost as if earlier drafts of the film were about sex therapy rather than marriage counseling.

The major beats of the story seem occur out of convenience, making the ending sort of exasperating in its predictability. But, there are parts of the film that work beautifully, all of which feature Jones’ innate ability to emote with a look, a gesture, or a sigh. The film is clearly geared toward an older audience, and it’s possible that some of its nuances will be lost on younger people. Still, the material struck me as pedestrian for the likes of Streep and Jones, even though their work here ranges from good to fantastic. If you consider yourself a fan of either, “Hope Springs” deserves your time, but I’m not sure it deserved theirs.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: August 8, 2012
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: David Frankel
Screenwriter: Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving sexuality)