Friday 14 September 2012

In treatment: "Hope Springs"

There would be many reasons to take against Hope Springs. That this is another calculated assault on the grey pound, for one; that it is - God forbid - a conspicuous chick flick, written by TV alumna Vanessa Taylor (Alias, Everwood, Jack and Bobby), starring Mamma Mia Meryl Streep, reunited with her Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel, and extolling the virtues of (gulp) expressing your feelings; that it cribs the title of an old Colin Firth-Minnie Driver-Heather Graham romcom, which nobody else seems to have noticed, but which has left this correspondent, for one, fuming; most of all, that it's a film which sets out to encourage your grandparents to have more sex in public places, a platform that will, one suspects, be as much of a turn-off for younger viewers as, say, an Avengers sequel might for the Darby-and-Joan set. But hold your fire.

Its heroine Kay (Streep) is coming up on 31 years of marriage to Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), yet she feels unfulfilled, and - in the bedroom, in particular - wants more. This is understandable: Arnold, a taxman by profession and at heart, has come to regard any form of intimacy as a source of squirming embarrassment, and a waste of perfectly good time he could be using to finesse his golf swing. (Even here, he prefers to watch, not play.) To this end, Kay drags him  - or would drag him, if he didn't flinch so from her touch - to the small town of the title, and a series of appointments with Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell), a specialist in helping older couples rediscover their mojo. Thereafter, if it weren't for the schoolkids sitting sniggering at the back, you'd say Hope Springs becomes a three-hander, as Carell, allowed to display nary a flicker of personality in the apogee of his recent Mr. Normal roles, tosses the pair questions intended to get his patients to open up - about themselves, and to one another.

It's one of those instances where the casting really is half the film: Frankel need only cut from Streep's mumsy softness to the granite-hardness of Jones to let us know we have conflict of a kind, but thankfully Taylor's script arms the leads with appreciable subtleties to make hay with. The film's most enduring (and most endearing) gag is that Kay is hardly some Annie Sprinkle-like sexual radical, rather a somewhat conservative woman whose pre-eminent fantasy is to have her vows renewed, and has to ask altogether timidly for what she wants; Streep gives us a lovely, truthful mini-moment when she reaches out to pat her co-star's stomach, and lets us see the hand trembling. And there's that particular joy - redoubled here, after the rote, in-it-for-the-money laziness of Men in Black 3 - of seeing Jones being encouraged, by his director and co-stars, into recalibrating his factory setting of terse, and snuffling out the nuances within Arnold's general fog of grump.

Frankel's close-knit handling - content merely to work with these actors in small, brightly-lit rooms - acknowledges Kay and Arnold's is a minor revolution, more case study than anything else, but from tiny blue pills do mighty oaks sometimes grow. Of course, the 12A-rated Hope Springs is gentle and coy when it comes to its central reunion of loins - these are sixtysomething small-town Americans talking about sex, and perhaps not even hardcore Meryl and Tommy fans would care to see them playing hide the banana - but then it's never big enough to talk down to its target audience, as a moneyed globetrotter like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel did; we're left simply to watch people change and grow at a moment in life when they least expected to do so, and being nudged towards a sweeter spot than we first found them in, and there's something to be said for that. Though if you are under sixty and planning to see the film, you might want to give any seniors present a row or two to themselves. You'll know why when you see it.

Hope Springs opens nationwide today.

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