Monthly Archives: November 2014

My Year With Meryl: Hope Springs (2012)


After winning her third Academy Award, Meryl could have taken a much deserved break, but not only did she start shooting August: Osage County soon after her big win, she had another movie due for release later that summer—the David Frankel comedy-drama Hope Springs. Unlike The Iron Lady, which was the kind of prestige picture made specifically to win awards, Hope Springs is a quiet, sometimes funny, often sad movie that works more as a rainy day kind of entertainment. Meryl does a terrific job in Hope Springs playing a vulnerable, unsatisfied housewife named Kay, but it’s actually Tommy Lee Jones, who plays her repressed husband Arnold, who transforms his typical tough guy persona to create an emotionally resonant character.

Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay was originally titled Great Hope Springs and was for some time on the Black List, the list of most loved unproduced screenplays circulating Hollywood. It was Meryl’s enthusiasm over the project that got it officially rolling, and she turned to her The Devil Wears Prada helmer Frankel to take the directing reigns. He says in the DVD audio commentary that when Meryl boards a movie—any movie—a director essentially has his pick of any actors he wants for the other roles. Would Carell have taken the role of the therapist Doctor Feld if not for the opportunity to perform with two acting legends? Probably not. Would Elizabeth Shue, who back in 1996 was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars along with Meryl, have taken a brief cameo as a no-name waitress? Meryl is so respected that she attracts many fantastic actors to her projects, and together Frankel and Meryl decided on Jones for the pivotal role of her husband, Arnold.


It’s easy to see what attracted Meryl to Hope Springs. How often do major movies get made, let alone movies released in the summer among superhero blockbusters, that are about two people over age sixty trying to put the spark back into their relationship? Very few, and even fewer that are made with wit and intelligence. The story is simple: Kay (Meryl) has been married to Arnold (Jones) for thirty-one years, but any emotion felt between the two has been lost. They sleep in separate bedrooms, they don’t talk about anything, they don’t even touch each other anymore. She realizes the marriage is doomed if she doesn’t do something to save it, so she drags Arnold to Maine to spend a week in intensive counseling with the renowned Doctor Feld (Carell). By opening up to the therapist and each other, they find what’s lacking, and what needs to be fixed, before one of them might decide it’s too late.

Hope Springs is not the most visually arresting movie—much of it takes place in one drab room with three people just talking to each other—but the performances are so great and the dialogue is so truthful that even when the movie feels like a series of one-act plays, it works. These scenes crackle with a perfectly timed rhythm that make them pure joy, to the point that some of them seem too short, even at eight to ten minutes. Meryl and Jones have a tremendous chemistry that makes them feel like a real couple, both when they’re in a bad place, and when they finally reach a better one. What works especially well is screenwriter Taylor’s insistence that Kay and Arnold not have an easy road toward an authentic reconciliation; until the last few minutes, it’s not clear if the two will be able to work through their problems. This element gives the film an effective level of unpredictability, even though in our hearts we know they’ll find love again. While Frankel lays it on too thick at times with some ill-timed pop songs—Annie Lennox’s saccharine “Why” toward the end of the movie is a prime example—and while the happy ending is a little too abrupt, Hope Springs is definitely worthwhile viewing.


The performances are all solid. Carell has the most thankless role as Doctor Feld, simply because he plays a character with no backstory or depth of any kind (although the DVD includes a great deleted scene that shows in explicit detail his marital woes). This is a movie about Kay and Arnold, and to have gone into the history of Feld would have been inappropriate, but Carell is a welcome dramatic presence in a film that plays up his stone-faced strengths. Jones, the Oscar winner for the smart-talking Samuel in The Fugitive and Oscar nominee for the similarly cynical Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln, is wonderfully subdued as Arnold. He’s physically perfect casting for this role, a man who’s emotionally closed off from his wife and scared to reignite their intimacy, but it’s his deeply felt performance that truly makes this film worth watching. Over the years, Jones has had the tendency to go over-the-top in his movies (think Natural Born Killers, Batman Forever, and JFK) and this quieter guy, who resembles more his characters from No Country for Old Men and the recent The Homesman, which also co-stars Meryl (they also appeared in A Prairie Home Companion together), is Jones at his best, looking inward and trying his best to come out of his shell. Jones is a pleasure to watch in Hope Springs, and his performance should have received more accolades.

Meryl is appropriately dowdy as Kay, with a blonde hairdo and thick black glasses that cover most of her face, and unlike many of her previous characters, she is someone who doesn’t often speak her mind—it takes every ounce of courage inside of her just to ask her husband to come with her to the therapy sessions. Many might think this performance was a step-down after her bravura, Oscar-winning work in The Iron Lady, but the magic of Meryl is that she refuses to be predictable in her choice of characters and that she’s unafraid to take on someone who might not necessarily be the most outspoken. She followed up her frumpy therapist character in Prime with her Queen of Evil in The Devil Wears Prada; she followed up her dancing and singing in Mamma Mia with her quietly damaged nun in Doubt. To look at The Iron Lady and Hope Springs back to back is to see an actress completely in command of her craft, and not afraid to show her own vanity. She’s not expected to look like a bombshell in Hope Springs, and her mousy appearance only helps in making Meryl the person disappear into this character that surely millions of women can relate to. So much of her brilliance in this performance comes from moments when she doesn’t even open her mouth but instead just sits and thinks and reacts. Meryl doesn’t have to go big to be great; at this stage in her career, just watching her be is more than enough. Hope Springs is not a great movie, but it’s an endearing one, and it features two of our finest actors in top form.


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My Year With Meryl: The Iron Lady (2011)


We have arrived at one of the more controversial films on Meryl’s resume, both how it depicts Margaret Thatcher in her later life and how Meryl finally won her third Academy Award, beating out the supposed favorite, Viola Davis. The Iron Lady, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is a strangely unaffecting movie that goes by far too slowly and features a weird hodgepodge of narratives that never mix together well. The greatest disappointment of the movie is that it could have been great, given that Meryl is sensational in it, playing Thatcher as ambitious in her early days, strong and willing to make touch decisions in her Prime Minister days, and losing the light in her later stage of dementia. Everything about Meryl’s performance is flawless and screams master class. It’s just a shame that little in the film measures up to her.


The blame has to go to Morgan’s screenplay and Lloyd’s direction, which never finds a compelling point of view into who Thatcher really was. Abi, who wrote the 2013 feature The Invisible Woman and won an Emmy for writing the mini-series The Hour, seemed to think watching scene after scene of the elderly Thatcher getting false glimpses of her husband and marveling at the skyrocketing prices of milk would be fascinating for the viewer, but they’re not. If the film had merely begun and ended with the wraparound story of Thatcher as old, there might have been a point to be made about the pursuit of power and its consequences, but the film keeps cutting back to her in this stage, time and time again, to the point where any point to be made becomes lost. Lloyd, who previously directed Meryl in the musical extravaganza Mamma Mia, which is about as far removed from The Iron Lady as you can get, casted the movie well—Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Head is particularly good as Geoffrey Howe—and brings a polished look to the proceedings. Clearly, though, she didn’t have a handle on the themes of the movie either, because she allowed the odd shifts of narratives to play out the way they do.


The same way that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln effectively examines not Abraham Lincoln’s entire life, but a small, important nugget of it, The Iron Lady could have been a tense, absorbing look into a short period of time in Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister, maybe focusing on a specific issue she contended with that brought great controversy onto her. Instead, there’s too much: we get glimpses of Thatcher as a young woman starting out in her career (Alexander Roach, uncanny as a younger Meryl), and Thatcher as the Prime Minister, and Thatcher as the old lady who’s slowly going mad. The film also tries to make us care about the love story Thatcher had with Denis Thatcher (an inappropriately wily Jim Broadbent in the older years and a more restrained Harry Lloyd in the younger ones). But since so little of the movie focuses on the older Denis when he’s actually alive, the emotional resonance of this relationship gets lost in the process. There’s so much going on at times, with rarely a scene that’s allowed to play out long enough to get us invested, that at a certain point it feels like an editor could’ve taken all of the scenes in the movie, thrown them in a blender, and come out with something that more and less represents the film as it stands now.


All of these story and editing problems almost serve to try to weaken Meryl’s stellar performance, which represents probably her best dramatic work since The Bridges of Madison County. Fairly short at one hour and forty-five minutes—many famous screen biopics like Gandhi and Nixon have weighed in at over three hours—The Iron Lady should have given Meryl a lot more to work with, but she does her best with what she has to work with. She is intimidating, clever, and funny in her many scenes as Thatcher in her Prime Minister years, with true-to-life wardrobes, an impeccable accent, and subtle, masterful make-up and hair that won Oscars for Mark Coulier, and J. Roy Helland, the latter figure having worked with Meryl throughout her entire career. (When he picked up his Oscar, he said, “Thanks, Meryl, for keeping me employed for the last thirty-seven years. Your brilliance makes my work look good no matter what.”) Her make-up is even more convincing when she’s older, with cleverly hidden prosthetics and Meryl appearing believably like an old woman, and despite these scenes not working as well as they should, Meryl is brilliant at capturing the downfall of this once powerful figure.


Even though just catching a glimpse of Meryl as Thatcher prompted everyone to assume Meryl would be nominated for another Academy Award, her likelihood of actually winning seemed uncertain leading up to the big night in 2012. While she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, Viola Davis had been picking up steam in recent weeks, winning the important Best Female Actor in a Lead Role at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, for her terrific performance in The Help. The only African American actress to have won a leading role Oscar was Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball, and it seemed possible that Davis would become the second. But in the end, the Academy decided that Meryl’s work in The Iron Lady, despite the film’s shortcomings, was worthy of the big award. It had been twenty-nine years since she’d won her last Oscar for Sophie’s Choice, after all, and she had lost a whopping twelve times since. She had gotten close with Doubt, and semi-close with Julie & Julia. It was time.

84th Academy Awards

The biggest tragedy of her winning, of course, is that in the far-off future, people may turn to The Iron Lady before they look at much better dramas she appeared in, like A Cry in the Dark, The Bridges of Madison County, and Marvin’s Room, the latter of which she wasn’t even nominated for. People might think that because Meryl won for this specific performance, it might also be the better movie. While Meryl is amazing in The Iron Lady, it’s arguably one of her weakest movies overall, and it’s sad, given the great opportunity of having Meryl play the powerful and polarizing figure of Margaret Thatcher, that the filmmakers couldn’t have produced a more entertaining and involving film.



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My Year With Meryl: It’s Complicated (2009)


As another decade drew to a close, Meryl delivered yet another one of her sensational achievements: her portrayal of Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia. For this performance, she went on to win the Golden Globe award and receive her sixteenth Academy Award nomination. But Meryl, a borderline workaholic at this point with three releases in 2007 and three releases in 2008, had one more bonus film to finish the decade with, one that opened on Christmas Day: It’s Complicated, which, like Julie & Julia, was written and directed by a woman—Nancy Meyers—and featured Meryl in the role of a talented cook. Unlike Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated has a lazier, sitcom-y feel to it that slows the film down at points and doesn’t leave a lot to think about when the end credits begin rolling. But like in Meyers’ previous fluffy entertainments Something’s Gotta Give and The Holiday, the enormously talented actors involved elevate the material considerably.

Meyers wrote the part of Jane Adler for Meryl specifically and said in the DVD commentary that she pictured Meryl speaking her words all throughout the process of writing the screenplay. Meyers had worked with such Oscar-winning heavyweights as Diane Keaton and Kate Winslet in her previous films, so it must have seemed only natural to pursue the most acclaimed actress of all. One of the few writer-directors in Hollywood, Meyers was able to breathe a sigh of relief when Meryl responded to the material immediately and signed on to the project. It doesn’t hurt that despite Jane being more like Meryl than most of her other screen creations, it’s a juicy role that’s featured in almost every scene of the movie and gives her lots to do in both comedy and drama. It also gave her the opportunity to act alongside funny men Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin for the first time, no minor achievement.


Jane is a gifted baker and cook who has her own flourishing business in downtown Santa Barbara, but besides her job, not a lot is going well in her life. She’s still sad about her divorce from her ex-husband Jake (Baldwin), who left her ten years ago for a much-younger woman. Her youngest child has just moved out of her home, leaving her with an empty nest. And when she’s in New York for her son’s graduation, she gets drunk and has sex with Jake. She tries to put the incident behind her, but Jake keeps coming back for more, and despite her knowing that the affair is a bad idea, she keeps seeing him anyway. In the meantime, someone else pops up in her life, too: Adam (Martin), her architect who is helping her design a new wing of her house. She doesn’t think much of him at first, but when Jake stands her up, she invites Adam to a party, where they both smoke marijuana and have some of the most fun in their lives. Will Jane choose Jake or Adam? The film keeps the viewer titillated by the uncertainty.

It’s Complicated is an entertaining, breezy movie that is nothing special, and certainly not one of the films that will be heavily featured in any Meryl highlights reel. But it goes down easily, like vanilla ice cream, delicious while you’re tasting it, not much to think about when it’s over. The film is slowly paced, never in a rush, never trying to get to the next big joke. It takes its time and allows for the three central characters to be fleshed out, particularly Jane. The most joy in watching It’s Complicated comes from seeing Meryl interact with Baldwin and Martin, two funny actors who are also deft at drama, and who are perfectly matched for her in this film. Baldwin, who hadn’t been given a role this good since 2003’s The Cooler, has a magnetic chemistry with Meryl, especially in their quieter scenes (he received a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor). Martin, who hadn’t had a decent movie since 2001’s underrated black comedy Novocaine, shows a sweetness in the nerdy Adam character that he rarely displays in the movies. Too often relegated to flashy comedic characters in mediocrity like Cheaper by the Dozen, Martin has been effectively serious in films like Shopgirl and Grand Canyon, and to some extent the brilliant Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and his sensitive side thankfully gets played up in It’s Complicated. His chemistry with Meryl is different than Baldwin’s, more sincere and grounded. One of the best scenes in the movie has Meryl and Martin baking a fresh batch of chocolate croissants, and the romance developing between the two feels natural and earned.


The character of Jane is one of Meryl’s least challenging roles, which, like Julia in Defending Your Life, mostly consists of traits of Meryl herself, as opposed to a creation like Julia Child that had to be molded from the outside in. She gets to show different shades all throughout the movie, the most fun one being a long stretch of time when she’s high off marijuana. She’s as loose in this sequence as she’s ever been in a movie, and the big comedic scenes in It’s Complicated show that Meryl is always up for something silly. As forced as the situations can sometimes be—the scene involving iChat stretches credibility a bit too far—Meryl sells them the best she can. She also has solid dramatic moments throughout, like when she gets stood up by her ex-husband and quietly turns out all the lights, and a scene toward the end when a look of unexpected rejection says so much with so little. She makes the viewer sympathize with her, despite the fact that she’s cheating with a married man, and lying to people over the phone. And she always makes the character grounded in reality, even when she’s living in a large dream-like house not even Meryl herself could probably afford, even when she’s laughing hysterically as she takes another hit of weed, even when writer-director Meyers is cramming illogical plot developments and the occasional contrived joke down her throat. Even when the movie itself isn’t wholly successful, Meryl, unbelievably, makes it work—at least to a certain extent.

Meryl received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in It’s Complicated, but 2009 was really the year of Julie and Julia for her, and by the end of awards season, It’s Complicated had mostly been forgotten. It was a success at the box office, making 112 million in the United States and over 200 million worldwide, showing that Meryl, 60 years old at the time of the film’s release, was a box office draw unlike any actor her age, male or female. She had impressed in movie after movie at that time, singing in Mamma Mia, crying in Doubt, laughing in Julie and Julia. But after It’s Complicated, Meryl was ready to take on a role that would be one of her most daring yet, and certainly her most challenging since any dramatic film she’d made since The Bridges of Madison County. Finally, after nearly three decades of superior work with endless nominations and too few wins to show for them, Meryl was about to pick up her third Academy Award.


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My Year With Meryl: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

DF Int One Sheet

And now for something truly spectacular: Meryl in animated form! Almost every major Hollywood star has voiced a character in an animated film at one point in his or her career—Tom Hanks in Toy Story, Cameron Diaz in Shrek, Sandra Bullock in Minions—and Meryl is no exception. Voicing characters can be challenging, but most actors would say it’s a load of fun because it’s just you and the microphone, in your PJs, in a studio, with no make-up on, pure imagination at is peak. Woody Allen is famous for voicing his main character in 1998’s Antz in a mere five days, and Luke Skywalker himself Mark Hamill has made an entire career post-Star Wars doing voice work. Meryl is not an actor who necessarily seems an obvious choice to voice an animated character, but she’s done it more than once throughout her career.

During the 1980s, when Meryl primarily acted in lead roles in dramatic feature films, she lent her talents to one other arena—animation. She was the narrator—credited simply as Storyteller—for a series of video shorts based on Beatrix Potter’s famous children’s stories, starting with Rabbit Ears: The Tale of Peter Rabbit. In 1994, she lent her voice to The Simpsons, playing Bart Simpsons’ girlfriend Jessica Lovejoy, in the seventh episode of the sixth season titled “Bart’s Girlfriend.” In 1999, she played Aunt Esme Dauterive in the sixth episode of King of the Hill’s fourth season, “A Beer Can Named Desire.” She voiced Blue Mecha in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 feature A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and even lent her voice as the character of Jennie to the silliest title on her entire resume—Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life, from 2010. Her first animated feature that she voiced a character for was 2006’s The Ant Bully, a rare bomb in the animated world that cost an estimated 50 million but grossed only 28 million nationwide. She played the role of Queen and teamed with talent like her Prairie Home Companion co-star Lily Tomlin, her Adaptation co-star Nicolas Cage, and her August: Osage County co-star Julia Roberts, but all those big names didn’t do much to pull in audiences or bring credence to the voice-work she had been doing since 1987.


All that changed, though, with Wes Anderson’s magnificently entertaining 2009 stop-motion animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox, which teamed Meryl with George Clooney, as well as Anderson regulars Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on Roald Dahl’s beloved 1970 children’s novel about a fox—aptly named Mr. Fox—who every night steals food from three grotesque and mean-spirited farmers, Walter Boggis, Nathaniel Bunce, and Franklin Bean. The men become fed up with Mr. Fox’s shenanigans, so they set out to destroy him—of course, they have no idea the fight they’re about to face. Clooney voices the protagonist Mr. Fox, and Meryl voices his wife Felicity, mother to little Ash and aunt to Kristofferson, a stern but loving character who wants only the best for her family, especially when it comes to her husband’s questionable safety.

Cate Blanchett was the first choice for Felicity, but she dropped out for undisclosed reasons, and Meryl took over the character. She proved to be an inspired choice. Her calm, breathy voice is perfect for Felicity, who has that desirable mix of truth-telling and sweetness, of no-nonsense and stability. A quick stare from her can put any other creature in its place, and so, while Felicity doesn’t get as much screen-time as Mr. Fox, her character leaves an indelible impression on the viewer. It’s unclear how many days Meryl worked on this film—with so much time dedicated to her 2008 and 2009 live-action features, it’s likely she completed her work on Fantastic Mr. Fox, which she reportedly did in Paris, in a week or two at most—but no matter her limited involvement, her casting was a masterstroke to this production, which offers similarly great voice work from Clooney, Murray, and especially Dumbledore himself Michael Gambon, as the awful Franklin Bean.


Fantastic Mr. Fox marked Anderson’s sixth feature as a director, and the umpteenth movie to be made from Dahl’s books. While the 1971 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remains the all-time best (with 1990’s The Witches and 1996’s Mathilda close behind), Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the most entertaining and innovative takes on a Dahl story. The writer remains one of the finest children’s storytellers who ever lived, and his books live on well after his death in 1990, always inspiring new writers and filmmakers alike. Anderson admitted in the behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD that Dahl is one of his favorites of all time and that it was a dream come true to translate one of his books into a movie. Of course, live action would’ve been weird for this story, and the stop-motion, versus traditional and computer animation, was ultimately the perfect choice, because it gives a tangible quality to the characters and a bright, cheery setting that can only be achieved in camera. The book itself is short at 96 illustrated pages, so Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach had to expand the story, effectively adding a first act and a third act that give more backstory to the central characters.

Even more is given in the film version to the Felicity character, which thankfully, for her fans everywhere, allowed Meryl more to do in the storyline, and more scenes for her to appear in. While she has voiced numerous animated characters in multiple projects, Fantastic Mr. Fox remains her best work of animation she’s been involved in, and likely ever will. Released in November 2009, Fantastic Mr. Fox came out between her big hit comedies Julie and Julia and It’s Complicated. While 2008 was a stellar year for Meryl, with a smash musical success and an award-friendly drama, 2009 marked an even bigger high for her, because not only did her two live-action features net her award nominations and big box office, but she also lent her voice to a wickedly funny and subversive animated film. While it would be a treat for audiences everywhere if Meryl one day appeared in a live-action movie directed by Anderson, handing her talent over to this fantastic piece of animation is easily the next best thing.


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