Friday, August 10, 2012

Love: Hope Springs

In my freshman year of college I had a roommate who didn't understand me so well.  Granted, I didn't particularly 'get' her either, but there's no point going into that now.  One stellar example of our lack of communication was a specific conversation on When Harry met Sally.  She and a friend were hanging around the room and mistakenly thought I'd said I hadn't seen the movie, to which they emphatically responded "Oh, you would hate it. You would really hate it. It's not your thing at all."  Prompting me, of course, to reach over onto my rack of DVDs, pull out my copy of When Harry met Sally, and throw it onto the bed where they sat.  Then I followed it with Something's Gotta Give, a movie I had an especially strange love for at that point in time.  It was like operation shock and awe. You may have thought that was leading towards some sort of friendship counseling story (and it could have, in this situation), but where I'm really going is this: though it may seem out of character, I'm all for the Nora Ephrons and Nancy Meyerses of the world.  Though not a hard and fast rule, I'm all for throwing mom in the car and watching ladies sort out their complicated life issues when the rom com in question appears to have enough sour with its saccharine sweet.  So yeah, I may have instigated my mom's sudden need to see Hope Springs opening week.  And yeah, I may have looked forward to watching a middle age person sex-comedy as a pleasant break in the day.  And yes, amazingly I saw this before seeking out Total Recall or Celeste and Jesse Forever.  Deal with it.  
 Now that we've established that I have a not-so-secret love for beach houses and Diane Keaton's turtlenecks, let's talk about Meryl Streep's Midwestern makeover.  Streep is an actress who seems to balance the prestige pictures with the fun ones, and in her case even the would-be fluff pieces have a fair amount of meat to them.  For every Doubt there's a Mamma Mia! (no meat there, sorry).  For each Adaptation there's a Devil wears Prada.  She can do wonderful things with a surface archetype, and fresh off an awards rush for playing the immensely complicated Margaret Thatcher, she stepped comfortably into the sensible shoes of a meek, rather desperate housewife in Hope Springs.  Kay and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married for 31 years, the last five of which have seen their relationship slowly becoming a matter of platonic proximity.  They comfortably share the same space, but not the same bed.  They don't touch, they kiss perfunctorily in light pecks on the cheek, and they certainly don't have sex.  After another anniversary passes with little fanfare and a shared gift for the house, Kay tires of Arnold's curmudgeonly reluctance, steps out of her comfort zone, and signs them up for a week of intensive couples therapy with the placid Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). Arnold, quite simply, isn't into it.  He goes, but unwillingly.      

To a certain extent, you can predict how their sessions will play out.  You know that Kay and Arnold's therapy conversations will be awkward at first; he'll bristle at Dr. Feld's comments and she'll become upset. Words will be spoken, revelations will be made, surprising fantasies may be revealed.  Streep looks every ounce the Nebraskan lady and plays Kay with an odd integrity that's almost frustrating.  Kay never gets angry.  She lets Arnold complain and bottles things up only to later release them in passive aggressive displays of subtle resistance.  As I waited for her to have the comedic break and go ape-shit on the therapist's couch, I realized it wouldn't be believable if she did.  That may be Streep, but it's not Kay.  Kay's not there for conflict, that's not what she wants.  She doesn't know quite what their relationship could be, but she knows it's not good enough in the condition that its in.  To a certain extent, Kay is trapped by her upbringing, but Arnold is too.  As Kay fancies herself a lady, Arnold is a gentleman of the old school variety.  He complains at Kay on occasion, but he never complains about the stuff he thinks would really sting.  Neither communicates their needs out of a perceived respect for the other's wants.  Streep plays it quiet, Tommy Lee Jones breaks out the dry humor at a slightly louder level.  We realize as we watch him just how well he can play all those shades of monotone.  Both actors are masters of revealing small, evolutionary details in minuscule actions, tics, or inflections.  The chemistry (or lack thereof) works.
 While there's a certain level of transparency to Hope Springs, the strength of the performances adds something unpredictable and volatile into the mix.  There are points at which we're really not sure whether we're watching the resurrection of a relationship or its dissolution.  Hope Springs is funny, but softly tragic in its depth of feeling.  It breaks with the conventions of its supposed genre and paces itself with a notable absence of kicky pop music montage, unrealistic budgets, and glossy details of so many of those 'beach house' movies.  We get wonderful, realistic details here: attempts at holding one another in a shoddy splendor of the Econolodge, generic cars, lived-in looking rooms, and unsatisfying retail jobs. Past that, there's a weighty amount of indie-real false starts and confused soul searching.  This isn't a movie where the passion is rekindled by a quick trip to the coast, it's not one where Steve Carell gets to play wacky doctor, but is instead one about the way two people who have spent everyday of the last three decades together can fail to know one another.  The more you grow to like Kay and Arnold, the more you begin to realize how strained their relationship has been since day one. You feel for them.  You understand their difficulties.  You get - really get - how sad a marriage like this really can be for those involved and the way things can go unspoken and how those unspoken truths can become unpleasant, self-created traps.  

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