At my ripe young age of 20, I look to my favorite Hollywood movies to reaffirm my dream of falling in love with a flawless man who will whisk me off my feet, complete with a perfect wedding. We will grow old together, reveling in our joy, and telling the new 20-year-olds all the secrets to our perfect marriage. Sadly, It’s Complicated and Hope Springs are putting a bit of a damper on my life plan.
In David Frankel’s new film, Hope Springs (written by Vanessa Taylor), Meryl Streep plays Kay, a woman who finds herself 31 years into something that doesn’t quite resemble a marriage anymore. Back in 2009, Meryl co-starred as Jane Adler, a divorcée who tumbles into an affair with her ex-husband in Nancy Meyer’s It’s Complicated. After fully investing in these two films, I feel like my only options are to be an unhappy divorcee or an unhappy wife. Either way I’m unhappy — yet, either way I’m Meryl Streep, so I suppose I’ll be alright.
But what about these films? Will they survive the long haul of a blissful union with their respective audiences, or will they grow old and dated, their charms no longer working their magic against new temptations? Clearly, one is made to last, while the other is worth a fling at best.
Splashed over every billboard in town is the same thing: From the Director of The Devil Wears Prada…! David Frankel is reunited with Meryl Streep in his newest film: Hope Springs. I hope girls don’t line the streets wearing their best Pradas, as this is a very different movie.
Kay and Arnold have been married for 31 years and have forgotten that marriage means actually acknowledging one another. Kaye is fed up and tells Arnold it’s counseling or divorce. Oh, but not just any counseling – a week-long “intensive” counseling in the small town of Hope Springs, Maine. If flashes of Steve Carrell in the trailers draw viewers looking for comedy, they are bound to be disappointed, as he plays an almost annoyingly stagnant therapist. Every day, Kay and Arnold come to his office and he tells them something they seem to have forgotten: Marriage includes touching, talking, kissing, and sex.
Arnold is extremely resistant to the therapy sessions. He won’t answer questions, complains of the price, and at one point walks out of the room. Eventually, after much tear-jerking, he shows us his romantic side when he pulls out all the stops to bring Kaye on the nicest date they’ve ever had. He stands in the lobby of the best hotel restaurant in town to nail a reservation, then surprises his wife with a room for the night. The night predictably goes awry when their attempt at sex doesn’t fully work with their aged bodies. After a week of intensive counseling, the two go home and fall back into their everyday flow. Kaye, however, isn’t quite sure if she can accept what she so desperately wanted to change.
Whenever a Nancy Meyers film comes out, I am the first at the box office. I get lost in the refreshing, quirky humor, the beautiful homes, nice cars, and the happily-ever-after story lines. I accept whatever is needed to pull me into the stories, no matter how far-fetched.
In It’s Complicated, Jane (Streep), a divorced baker (apparently with some secret trust fund to afford her lavish home in Santa Barbara), comes face-to-face with her re-married ex-husband, played by Alec Baldwin, at their son’s college graduation. After a few hundred drinks at the hotel bar, they find themselves waking up, only to realize – whoops! – they slept together. As Jane tries to figure out if she wants to continue the affair, she begins dating her architect, played by Steve Martin. She decides to keep seeing them both, outwardly enjoying the freedom, while internally she’s a wreck.
Wow, now, that’s complicated! Not really, but like I said: I’ll accept whatever Nancy Meyers tells me to. It’s usually worth the ride.
Let’s start with the easy part: the talent. Tommy Lee Jones, does something in Hope Springs few mortals have been known to accomplish: He outshines Meryl Streep onscreen. His portrayal of the lazy, brooding but good-natured husband had me in tears at times. Meryl, in case I need to mention it, is perfect too, nailing her part of the pushover wife who has had enough. And it’s a good thing they’re both so strong, because this film wouldn’t have worked with actors of any less stature. The two of them are practically the only characters in the whole stagebound script, other than Carrell’s therapist, who was one-dimensional with no chance of proving anything, though it was fun to see him serious for the full five minutes he was on screen. It’s Complicated gave Meryl two strong actors to share the screen with: Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. The more layered story had actual comedy relief, and the cast was given more to do. Tommy Lee Jones blew me away, but even his talent can get a little old after an hour and a half with no supporting characters.
Hope Springs moves at a leisurely pace. Once the characters move into therapy, the story is very basic: They go to counseling, then back to their hotel room to try out their new tricks, then repeat. The film feels authentic in its attempt to capture exactly what the struggles of trying to rekindle a relationship in counseling would be. In fact, it’s so realistic that it might as well be real life. Real life is boring. At best, couples may get some free counseling out of it. It’s Complicated is more of a traditional romantic comedy, giving us plenty of humor based on Alec Baldwin’s kooky, I-want-it-all attitude.
Each film takes a stab at the same kind of humor: the one where the middle-aged leads try acting out like those crazy high school kids do. In Hope Springs, it involves, of course, sex. Kay tries to be spontaneous by getting down on her knees to pleasure her husband during a lightly-attended French film. It’s Complicated takes Jane and Adam on a first date at her daughter’s party, where they indulge in the ultimate party favor: marijuana. Jane endearingly gets high off one hit of her “pot” (that’s what the young-uns are calling it, right?). Both these scenes have their protagonists acting in a surprising, unconventional way to pull laughs, with It’s Complicated again scoring on points. Watching Streep on her knees was quite a sight, but ultimately more uncomfortable than funny or sexy.
Nancy Meyers is known for her lavish sets, and she did not disappoint in It’s Complicated. Set in Santa Barbara, Jane has a beautiful house with a garden and views to match. (She’s even making an addition!) Of course, it’s hard to wrap your brain around how she can afford all these things on a divorced baker’s income, yet the house is very easy on the eyes. Every woman I talk to about this movie says the same thing: “I loved her house!” Hope Springs brings us to a small town in Maine. Although the town is cute and visually interesting, we barely see outside of Kaye and Arnold’s house and hotel room. Hope Springs wins on realism, if that’s what you’re looking for, but director Meyers scores with her beautiful set design.
The hardest part of comparing these movies is that they stab at the same issue – older people falling out of love and trying to understand what is best for themselves – in very different ways. If you believe movies should give us accurate portrayals of reality, then Hope Springs is a beautifully acted slice of life. I prefer entertainment value – getting lost in comedy and the fantasy of beautiful sets – so picking It’s Complicated as my winner is actually not complicated at all. And if my fantasy ever does come true, at least I’ll have a beautiful house – and some pot to help me laugh away my troubles.