Posted October 28, 2012 by William Dunmyer in Dramedy

Hope Springs: Enjoyable and Important, But Not Great

Television screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, who appears to be barely 30, writes her first movie, “Hope Springs,” and it’s about people her grandparents’ age. Unusual. I can appreciate that.

She teams up with director David Frankel, who had a smash hit with ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ a few years ago. And then three little-known actors, Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, and Steve Carell, sign onto the project. How does that happen for a first-time screenwriter, and a female one at that? Amazing. She has a lot to be proud of.

The movie is definitely not great. It’s a television-level script directed in a television style. But it’s thoroughly enjoyable. I laughed out loud countless times. And when is it not enriching to the depths to watch the great Meryl Streep in action? How lucky we are that she continues to work.

Here Streep plays a housewife around age 65 grappling with the realization that her marriage has shriveled to almost nothing. She makes a real effort to revive it by getting into marriage counseling — and sex therapy — with her husband. Jones plays her ornery, macho, shut-down husband.

There are many things to appreciate about this movie, starting with the fact that Streep and Jones kept their portrayals very close to real life. They have no movie-star glamour whatsoever, and there’s no ironic distancing from the material. The script is about a semi-educated suburban couple, and at every moment the characters feel true to life and true to their generation — the generation born around the time of World War II.

These characters never got swept up by the counter-culture in the 1960s. They never smoked pot. It doesn’t appear that either one has ever had an affair. They’re people who have always colored inside the lines. Now for the first time, she is feeling the need for some assistance that doesn’t fit in with her generation. She wants a sex therapist. The hesitation she has, and then the full-on resistance her husband has to the idea, are a lot of fun to watch. And again, this resistance to newfangled ideas is so true to life, speaking as someone with parents in this generation.

Another special element of “Hope Springs” is its frankness about sexuality. We go into the sex therapist’s office with the couple and listen to many of their sessions. (Carell plays the therapist.) They are asked blunt questions. When was the last time they had sex? Do they masturbate? When they were having sex, was it only vaginal? Was it always in the missionary position? Did they ever have oral sex? How often? What sexual fantasies do they have?

It’s not often you hear 65-year-olds talking about how they masturbate! It was quite bracing to hear sexual details being discussed by characters of this generation. American society has a real taboo against discussing and depicting the sexuality of people over 60. I’ll admit there was some discomfort in listening to this. At times it felt like ripping a Band-Aid off. It hurt a bit, but it also felt good. And you knew it was important and the right thing to do.

A most hilarious scene involves Streep’s character reading a book called “Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man” and using a banana to practice oral sex.

It’s not only about sex though. The deeper issues revolve around when the couple stopped talking at deeper levels to each other. Through the course of middle age, something inside each of them began to shut down. The therapy tries to dig into that as well.

Yes, it’s simple. But “Hope Springs” is a delight to watch. It is very funny in parts and very tender in parts. It helps American culture get over one of its last sexual taboos, and it explores the tendency for relationships to ossify over time. It renews one’s faith that marriages can be revived if both parties have the courage. And it reminds us that life after 60 can be downright adventurous — even for ordinary people at the multiplex in Anytown, USA.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.