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.