The challenges of Hope Springs | Bleader

Friday, August 10, 2012

The challenges of Hope Springs

Posted By on 08.10.12 at 01:06 PM

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in Hope Springs
  • Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in Hope Springs
I can't bring myself to recommend the new release Hope Springs (imagine an ABC sitcom about your parents' sex life), though I'll admit it's something of a master class in screen acting. The film calls upon Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones to bring depth to characters who aren't very sympathetic or even all that interesting, and the veteran performers apply all their resources to the challenge. (And Steve Carrell, in an imploded performance as Streep and Jones's therapist, looks very plausible in a tie.) In a way, Hope Springs is as pure a demonstration of their talents as you're likely to see, since there's hardly any story or directorial style to mitigate them.

Playing an upper-middle-class housewife who no longer feels emotionally attached to her husband, Streep goes about her work the way she always has: by executing a series of discrete behavioral flourishes that demonstrate a prodigious gift for observation but nothing like actual empathy (a technical virtuoso with little soul, she may be the Wynton Marsalis of American actors). Her performance registers like a sociological report on sexually frustrated women born around 1950. The hesitant way she touches her husband after attending a couples' therapy session—which Streep seems to have blocked down to the millimeter—conveys a native curiosity stifled by decades of upholding the status quo. Here's a woman who was clearly aware of the sexual revolution and the struggle for the ERA (and maybe even sympathetic to both) but didn't engage with either because other responsibilities—accounting school, marriage, motherhood—got in the way. Hope Springs shows that this character can still learn to enjoy sex and emotional intimacy in her 60s. That's nice.

The character's husband is a longtime accountant with no apparent interests outside of home improvement and golf. He seems to think he's led a good life because he's raised two kids, held down a job, and made decent money. I couldn't care less about such a prideful automaton, and the movie's insistence on regarding him sympathetically may be its gravest misstep. Much can be mined from a man who's repressed his dreams in the name of easy conformity (James Mason's character in Bigger Than Life being one of the finest examples), but what about the man who never had dreams to begin with? Jones assumes a heavy comportment: he plays the character as a brick wall built around himself. The actor turns his usual authority inward and lets it curdle to a gooey stubbornness—a fascinating process as compared to Streep's point-by-point diagramming.

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