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Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 06:21 pm

Hope, an honest look at love and intimacy

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A bit of movie magic occurs in David Frankel’s Hope Springs, a surprisingly daring Hollywood production that deals with the thorny issue of how to rekindle sexual intimacy in a marriage long after passion has been dulled by the day-to-day trials of living and the deadly curse of familiarity. Promoted as a light comedy – it has its share of humorous moments – the film is much more. It provides a refreshingly honest portrait of a marriage in its death throes. There is far more wrong with the couple in question than what’s not going on between the sheets.

Kay and Arnold (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) have just celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary. While they appear to their children and neighbors to be content, there’s trouble brewing behind the walls of their placid suburban home. Like most longtime marrieds, they’ve unknowingly slipped into a routine that has taken over their lives. That is in order to avoid facing the fact that they have little in common and even less to say to one another anymore. Arnold does not live a life of quiet desperation but rather one of near comatose apathy, while Kay feels a restlessness in her that compels her to bring their issues out into the open. She starts by trying to address the fact that they haven’t made love in nearly five years by seeking a self-help book. This leads her to Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), a therapist with a knack for putting his clients at ease yet getting straight to the point where their issues are concerned. Kay has set up a week of appointments with him, which requires that she and Arnold fly to Maine. He dreads the trip, not so much for its expense, but because of what he may have to face.

Frankel moves this first act along quickly, allowing us to get a cursory understanding of Kay and Arnold, before beginning the therapy sessions. It is here that the story surprises us again and again. The discussion of their sexual habits and history, which I suspect are more common than we realize, prove to be a revelation. Hearing such open dialogue concerning a couple’s sexual history, why desire fades and the animosity it breeds, proves refreshing. The honesty in which Frankel and his cast approach it undercut any sort of sensationalism. This is a daring examination of human behavior. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor must be commended for her straightforward approach.

The writing is nothing without a capable cast to bring the words to life and it would be hard to come up with better performers. While I wouldn’t call this role a stretch for Streep, (really, what part would be?) I’d be hard-pressed to recall her appearing as a character as vulnerable and insecure as Kay. The actress conveys the woman’s frustration with her slightly flustered movements and reticence to speak, yet makes the character’s transformation into a determined woman convincing.

However, it is Jones who is the revelation here. While the actor utilizes many of his established techniques early on when Arnold appears as gruff and bullying, as the film progresses and the character is forced to reveal secrets and desires he’s learned to store deep inside, the actor shows what he’s made of. Embarrassed, angry, vulnerable and finally relieved, we come to admire the character’s journey and his honesty because Jones plays to his humanity, conveying that his repression comes from a justified and deep-seated hurt. While Jeff Bridges was originally cast in the role, he wouldn’t have been as effective, as he is a naturally effusive actor. Seeing Jones’ tough guy persona dissolve in front of us makes Arnold’s transformation all the more moving.

The film does fade a bit in its third act. It employs a bit of a narrative shortcut where Arnold’s behavior is concerned, while a more explicit approach would be better. Nevertheless, Hope Springs proves to be a welcome breath of fresh air, not only for its adult content, but also because of the honest and compassionate way it handles it.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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