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“Hope Springs”: No Sex Please, We’re Skittish

August 12, 2012

In recent years, adult films have become dirty words in Hollywood. And no, I’m not talking about pornos—I mean serious, mature movies for grownups. The studios would rather (over)spend their money on big-risk, big-reward superhero flicks than finance modestly budgeted comedies and dramas about ordinary people aimed at audiences who might not turn out in throngs on opening weekends. These smaller-scale films that rely more on talk and action are also harder to sell in non-English-speaking markets, which have become increasingly vital to the global entertainment conglomerates’ bottom lines.

Summer has become a drought season for smart movies, which makes the arrival of Hope Springs in the dog days of August especially refreshing. Meryl Streep has proven herself a late-blooming box-office queen with counterprogramming hits like The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia! and Julie & Julia, but this may be her toughest sell yet. It’s an adult film in every sense of the phrase. In short, it’s about sex. Among seniors. And despite the lighthearted marketing campaign, it doesn’t treat the topic as a joke.

Streep stars with Tommy Lee Jones as an Omaha couple whose 31-year-marriage has gone stale, so she goads him into attending an intensive weeklong couples counseling session with a soft-spoken shrink (a restrained Steve Carell) in small-town Maine. Even in her dowdiest Midwestern duds, Streep remains luminous, but it’s Jones who’s the real revelation here. He’s been coasting on his gruff persona for years now, in films both good (No Country for Old Men) and bad (Men in Black III). But as an accountant who grudgingly comes to terms with difficult-to-discuss feelings—a role Jeff Bridges turned down—Jones shows previously unseen vulnerability.

You may be almost as uncomfortable as Jones’ character, because it’s so rare for a mainstream American film to depict sex between a pair of age-appropriate oldsters, as opposed to a geriatric action hero romancing an ingenue several decades his junior. At times, it feels like watching your parents do it—or at least talk about doing it. (With its rather graphic treatment of oral sex, I’m surprised the film received a PG-13 rating, not that there’s much danger of teenagers wanting to see it.)

Penned by TV veteran Vanessa Taylor (Tell Me You Love Me, Game of Thrones), Hope Springs realistically portrays the often-frustrating process of therapy, with periodic setbacks and no simplistic breakthroughs. Director David Frankel—who also oversaw Streep’s polar-opposite role in Prada—achieves a genuine intimacy in the scenes featuring Streep, Jones and Carell, which make up the bulk of the film.

Hope Springs is not a perfect movie; Frankel overuses the lite-FM soundtrack in the sequences outside Carell’s office, and the supporting cast, including Elisabeth Shue as a bartender, Jean Smart as Streep’s clothing-store coworker and Mimi Rogers as a sexy neighbor, is largely superfluous. But in a cinematic season when aliens have become more common than flesh-and-blood human beings, it’s reason for hope.

Are you starved for grown-up entertainment like Hope Springs? Vent your feelings!

 

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3 Comments
  1. I’d watch Streep in anything.

    • bruceafretts permalink

      Me too! Except Mamma Mia! I have to draw the line somewhere.

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