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With: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Elisabeth Shue, Jean Smart, Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, Mimi Rogers, Becky Ann Baker
Written by: Vanessa Taylor
Directed by: David Frankel
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content involving sexuality
Running Time: 100
Date: 08/08/2012

Hope Springs (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Touch Me

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Hope Springs is a terrific platform for two great actors. It's also, as you will read everywhere, a very rare movie with two sixty-somethings in the lead roles, and nary a twenty-something in sight. And perhaps best of all, it's an actual discussion of human sexuality, unashamed and graceful.

So it's a shame, and perhaps necessary at the same time, that the material was entrusted to David Frankel, a chronically low-to middlebrow director of things like Miami Rhapsody (1995), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Marley & Me (2008), and The Big Year (2011). It's a shame because Frankel's instincts prompted him to insert light-rock pop songs into certain scenes, when the sheer emotional power of the acting could have sufficed.

He also douses the entire movie in a kind of tissue softness, or a blandness, that makes everything seem a bit safer and less threatening. That's a shame for anyone who wanted a bit more of a challenge here, but -- ironically -- a relief for 90% of the rest of the audience that may come to see this movie.

The two stars here are Meryl Streep, currently 63, and Tommy Lee Jones, currently 65. I mention their ages not because it matters so much to the movie, but because it's such a remarkable feat that these two should be headlining a movie in this day and age, when stars matter less than tentpole franchises, and movies are less risky than ever.

Streep plays Kay Soames, a Nebraska wife who cooks breakfast for her husband (bacon and eggs) and then goes to her job in a clothing boutique. Her husband is Arnold, a grumpy old bear of an accountant who sleeps in another room and has over the years stopped touching or kissing Kay. She has begun to grow tired of it, and makes an appointment for a marriage counseling retreat in Hope Springs, Maine.

Their doctor is Bernie Feld (Steve Carell), and he mostly listens quietly, and then asks direct questions about sex, which the older couple is shy to answer. It turns out that the Soames' problems simply stem from being reluctant to talk about sex, or to approach one another in a sexual way. Once the topic gets raised, it's only a matter of time before they find one another again.

Streep and Jones have been strapped down and made to look ordinary (Streep reminded me of my aunt and Jones my grandfather). Streep's hair in particular looks like she thinks it looks fine, but it really looks out of whack. Their performances within these restraints are exemplary. Carell, also, holds his own with these heavyweights with a confident quietness; he's commanding. Notable actors like Elisabeth Shue and Mimi Rogers appear in one scene each; this is a very focused microcosm of a movie.

The drama is kept gentle -- there are no real dramatic explosions -- specifically to focus tenderly on the sexuality. We're asked to watch scenes of this couple clumsily learning to explore one another's bodies once again. This is the kind of stuff that makes most Americans laugh nervously, except that these scenes simply don't do that (at least not during the press screening I attended). The scenes are treated respectfully, and laughter doesn't even seem like an option (except in deliberately silly scenes, such as Streep attempting to practice certain acts with a bunch of bananas).

I think Frankel succeeds in these respectful moments because he straddles the line between out-and-out eroticism and discomfort. Most movies try for one or the other, either attempting to titillate, or actually trying for that uncomfortable laughter when a sexual situation goes wrong, or veers into the absurd. This movie focuses on the love between two humans, and the wanting that comes from that love. Kay's character makes it clear that she doesn't just want sex... she wants her husband. This connection between love and sex -- as opposed to sex itself -- is what the movie is really about.

So Hope Springs isn't an enormously complex movie, nor is it terribly challenging or surprising. But here's the best thing I can say about it: it's a safe movie about being brave.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released a very nice Blu-ray edition, complete with a commentary track by David Frankel (actually recorded after an audience had seen the film). There are the usual collection of featurettes, including a "gag reel," as well as trailers.

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