Tag Archives: comedy

My Year With Meryl: Hope Springs (2012)

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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.

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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.

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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: Defending Your Life (1991)

Meryl has appeared in so many great movies that it can be hard to pick a favorite. Many would make a case for Sophie’s Choice, or Out of Africa, or Kramer Vs. Kramer. Death Becomes Her has its rabid fans, and The Devil Wears Prada is a modern comedy classic. Meryl’s performances have been nominated for Academy Awards in eighteen movies, so many might assume my favorite would be one of those. Most would assume, at the very least, that my favorite film of hers would feature her in the lead role. These assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth: my all-time favorite Meryl movie is one of her lesser-known works, one she didn’t win any awards for, and one in which she plays a supporting role. Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life is an enchanting motion picture that also happens to be my favorite comedy of all time.

D6Brooks plays Daniel Miller, a thirty-something advertising executive who, on his birthday, dies when his car crashes into a bus. He wakes up in a place called Judgment City, a sort-of purgatory where everyone who passes away goes to defend his or her life, in a trial-like setting. The place looks a lot like Earth, with its high-rise buildings, sushi restaurants, and championship golf courses. But it’s not Earth; in Judgment City, the life you just led is examined by a defender, a prosecutor, and two judges, to determine if you are ready to move on to the next higher stage of life, or need to go back and try again. For four days, you sit in a revolving chair and watch clips from your life, some of which show examples of your fear, and some that show examples of your courage. Did Daniel have enough courage? Or was he afraid, all the way to the end?

A story like this could have been told with a harder edge—even Woody Allen probably would have gone for the jugular more often in his punch-lines—but it’s the film’s sweetness that makes it truly winning, especially when Meryl pops up about a half-hour into the picture. She plays Julia, a mother of two who died when she tripped and drowned in a pool. She has an instant chemistry with Daniel, after they meet at a comedy club, and even though they only have four days together in this alternate universe, they immediately fall in love. Daniel never found true love on Earth but he immediately feels a connection with this woman, who is intelligent, likable, and funny, and who led a mostly fearless life. She’s obviously going to move on to the next stage, but is he?

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Defending Your Life is a subtle film. There is nothing particularly special about any of the performances, or the cinematography, or the production design. The jokes more often put a smile on your face than they make you laugh out loud. At the heart of the film is a tender romance, with the required Meet Cute, the first tender kiss, the obligatory happy ending. The premise is a great one, and Brooks’ screenplay is extremely clever, but there’s nothing especially extraordinary about the movie, especially from a filmmaking standpoint. So why then is this my favorite Meryl movie, and my favorite comedy ever?

Few movies, especially comedies, make you think differently about the world, but Defending Your Life truly transformed me when I saw it in high school. I had few friends at the time, and was always scared of social situations. I didn’t have a phobia by any means, but fear seemed to cloud up my head all day every day, in every endeavor I took on. Watching Defending Your Life for the first time not only entertained me to no end, with its witty one-liners and philosophical ideas and shades of romance, but it also woke me up to the fears that had been plaguing me year after year. At one point, a character says, “[People] can’t get through that fog [of fear]. But you get through it, and baby, you’re in for the ride of your life!” Defending Your Life is about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about conquering your fears, and living a life in truth. This film is a whole lot more than a comedy. It’s one of those rare movies that can change your life for the better; it certainly did mine.

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The film is packed with one memorable scene after another. You can eat whatever you want to your heart’s content without gaining weight in Judgment City, and so this concept plays a big role in the film. Judgment City has a Past Lives Pavilion, where you can see the people you’ve been in previous lives; the scene that takes the viewer into this Disneyland-like attraction offers some of the film’s biggest laughs. Merely the way Brooks starts the film is ingenious, not rushing to the first punch-line, but instead giving us close to ten minutes with Daniel as he goes about his day, chatting with a friend, buying a new car, singing a Barbra Streisand song to his heart’s content. For those not knowing what’s coming, his death might seem a surprise, especially given that this is a comedy.

Can a comedy about death be funny, though? Allen’s done it, in Love & Death, as well as Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait. Brooks’ film is the most effective of all because it’s not overly surreal, and it doesn’t have a dead person returning to Earth. Brooks treats his premise seriously, and one of the elements that works so well here is that after awhile you begin to believe that heading to Judgment City and defending your own life is what actually happens to you when death rears its ugly head. And it’s not a ridiculous notion! I have no idea what happens to us when we die, but in the fifteen years since I first saw this movie, I haven’t been able to find a more sensible afterlife, albeit brief at only five days, than the one featured here.

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Casting is critical to a movie, especially comedies, and in Defending Your Life, Brooks gathered the perfect group. Brooks stars in every film he directs, and he’s a unique actor who always brings something unexpected and moving to each role he plays, whether it’s broader comedies like his Lost in America and Mother, or in more serious fare like the 2011 thriller Drive. He has a lovable face that harbors what always looks to be a tortured soul. In Defending Your Life, he brings the necessary mix of dry humor and self-loathing to a role that could have come across much blander in the hands of a different actor. His Daniel is not afraid to admit his past mistakes, and he has a sweet, romantic side even he probably didn’t know he was capable of. He can be silly at times, over-the-top in his mannerisms occasionally, but incredibly moving, too, especially in the speech he makes to Julia his final night in Judgment City, and in his defeated expression he displays when the devastating verdict comes in. Brooks has only been nominated for one Academy Award—Best Supporting Actor in Broadcast News—but he deserved a second nod for his stellar turn here.

The supporting cast was especially well chosen. Rip Torn has rarely been more effective in a comedy than he is in Defending Your Life, playing Daniel’s defendant, Bob Diamond. His corny counterarguments in the courtroom, the way he laughs at his own terrible jokes, his insistence on calling humans who live on Earth “little brains.” He is simply fantastic in this. Lee Grant is equally memorable, playing Lena Foster, otherwise known as the Dragon Lady. She’s Daniel’s prosecutor, and, coming off a loss the previous Thursday, she is determined to prove that Daniel’s fears should keep him from moving forward. Her icy demeanor makes for great sparring between she and Daniel, as well as she and Bob, especially toward the end.

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Meryl is at her cheery, likable best in Defending Your Life, and while this is my favorite film of hers, it’s probably her least remarkable performance in her entire career. Her character Julia has only a little backstory—her marriage had more bad times than good, and she loved her children—and all we come to really know about her is that she is a smarter, more heroic, more giving individual than Daniel. It’s not hard to see why he’s attracted to her; not only is Meryl absolutely luminous in this film, but she makes Daniel a better person.

Despite her limited screen-time and lack of any true character development, Meryl makes an indelible impression. While she played more selfish, borderline wicked characters in her other two broad comedies at the time—She-Devil and Death Becomes Her—she plays, more or less, the perfect woman in Defending Your Life. It was probably the concept of the movie and the chance to work with Brooks that attracted her to this project—even Meryl would have to admit this may have been her least challenging role as an actress in her entire career—but it probably didn’t hurt that she got to play the funny and at the same time be endearing, as opposed to her typical conniving.

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While Julia is only in small chunks of the movie, she becomes firmly swept up in Daniel’s journey. When Daniel is sentenced to return to Earth to try again, it seems inevitable that these two characters are not meant to be. Lost in America, Brooks’ previous film he wrote and directed before Defending Your Life, is an 1980s comedy classic, but it was criticized at the time by top critics, including Roger Ebert, for having a weak ending. Brooks must have learned his lesson because the ending to Defending Your Life couldn’t be more perfect. Not only does it have a happy ending, with Daniel reuniting with his beloved Julia, but it is an earned happy ending, one that forces Daniel to prove his courage once and for all. I have watched this movie multiple times over the last fifteen years, and that final minute still makes me tear up.

Released quietly in the spring of 1991, Defending Your Life did mediocre box office and made little impression on audiences. However, more than any movie Meryl has made, this film has grown in stature over the years through word of mouth, more than anything. Unlike so many movies that leave your mind when the credits start rolling, Defending Your Life sticks with you, not just for days, but for years. It’s one of those rare movies I own that I’ll pop in to my DVD player once in a while, because it makes me think about where I am in my life and how I’m going to proceed from here. Fear robs us from what we can accomplish, from experiences we wouldn’t otherwise be able to enjoy. When I have a moment of panic, or try to avoid a situation that might make me step out of my comfort zone, I think about Defending Your Life. What would my prosecutor in Judgment City say, if I said no to an opportunity because I was afraid? This is a very deep movie, especially for a comedy. Most films in this genre make you laugh. Defending Your Life has the ability to transform you, in every aspect of your life.

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Best of all, this movie makes me happy. My favorite films include Sunset Boulevard, The Truman Show, Mulholland Drive, Halloween. All very different, all special to me for different reasons. These are timeless movies to me, the kind that never get old and actually seem to improve each time I watch them. Defending Your Life is the same way. It may not feature Meryl’s most extraordinary performance—not by a long shot—but it’s certainly an extraordinary film, one I will treasure for the rest of my life.

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