The trailers for Hope Springs might lead you to believe it's a romantic comedy about a couple trying to jumpstart their sexless marriage but it causes more empathetic cringing than chuckles. Audiences will be drawn to Hope Springs by its stars Meryl Streep Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell and Streep's track record of pleasing summer movies like Julie & Julia and Mamma Mia! that offer a respite from the blockbusters flooding theaters. Despite what its marketing might have you believe Hope Springs isn't a rom-com. The film is a disarming mixture of deeply intimate confessions by a married couple in the sanctuary of a therapist's office awkwardly honest attempts by that couple to physically reconnect and incredibly sappy scenes underscored by intrusive music. Boldly addressing female desire especially in older women it's hard not to give the movie extra credit for what writer Vanessa Taylor's script is trying to convey and its rarity in mainstream film. The ebb and flow of intimacy and desire in a long-term relationship is what drives Hope Springs and while there are plenty contrived moments and unresolved issues it is frankly surprising and surprisingly frank. It's a summer release from a major studio with high caliber stars aimed squarely at the generally underserved 50+ audience addressing the even more taboo topic of that audience's sex life.
Streep plays Kay a suburban wife who's deeply unsatisfied emotionally and sexually by her marriage to Arnold. Arnold who is played by Tommy Lee Jones as his craggiest sleeps in a separate bedroom now that their kids have left the nest; he's like a stone cold robot emotionally and physically and Kay tiptoes around trying to make him happy even as he ignores her every gesture. One of the most striking scenes in the movie is at the very beginning when Kay primps and fusses over her modest sleepwear in the hopes of seducing her husband. Streep makes it obvious that this isn't an easy thing for Kay; it takes all her guts to try and wordlessly suggest sex to her husband and when she's shot down it hurts to watch. This isn't a one time disconnect between their libidos; this is an ongoing problem that leaves Kay feeling insecure and undesirable.
After a foray into the self-help section of her bookstore Kay finds a therapist who holds week-long intensive couples' therapy sessions in Good Hope Springs ME and in a seemingly unprecedented moment of decisiveness she books a trip for the couple. Arnold of course is having none of it but he eventually comes along for the ride. That doesn't mean he's up for answering any of Dr. Feld's questions though. To be fair Dr. Feld (Carell) is asking the couple deeply intimate questions so if Arnold is comfortable foisting his amorous wife off with the excuse he had pork for lunch it's not so far-fetched to believe he'd be angry when Feld asks him about his fantasy life or masturbation habits.
Although Arnold gets a pass on some of his issues Kay is forthright about why and how she's dissatisfied. When Dr. Feld asks her if she masturbates she says she doesn't because it makes her too sad. Kay offers similar revelations; she's willing to bare it all to revive her marriage while Arnold thinks the fact that they're married at all means they must be happy. Carell's Dr. Feld is soothing and kind (even a bit bland) but it's always a pleasure to see him play it straight.
It's subversive for a mega-watt star to play a character that talks about how sexually unsatisfied she is and how unsexy she feels with the man she loves most in the world. The added taboo of Kay and Arnold's age adds that much more to the conversation. Kay and Arnold's attempts at intimacy are emotionally raw and hard to watch. Even when things get funny they're mostly awkward funny not ha-ha funny.
The rest of the movie is a little uneven wrapped up tightly and happily by the end. Their time spent soul-searching alone is a little cheesy especially when Kay ends up in a local bar where she gets a little dizzy on white wine while dishing about her problems to the bartender (Elisabeth Shue). Somewhere along the line what probably started out as a character study ended up as a wobbly drama that pushes some boundaries but eventually lets everyone off the emotional hook in favor of a smoothed-over happy ending. Still its disarming moments and performances almost balance it out. Although its target audience might be dismayed to find it's not as light-hearted as it would seem Hope Springs offers up the opportunity for discussion about sexuality and aging at a time when books and films like 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Mike are perking up similar conversations. In the end that's a good thing.
Not nearly as good as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl but still infinitely better than The Country Bears this third Disney theme park ride to come to life finally explains all those ghosts haunting that moss-covered wrought iron-gated mansion you've stood in a three-hour line to visit. Haunted Mansion starts off with the attraction's familiar ghoulish music and classic line "Welcome foolish mortals!" and quickly gets into how the now-decrepit house was once a thriving and stately antebellum palace that hosted 19th century New Orleans' wealthiest (aha the dancing ghosts in the Great Hall!). Its owner Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker) was the consummate Southern gentleman but had fallen in love with Elizabeth a beautiful woman who unfortunately was considered beneath Gracey's stature. Disregarding the advice from his trusted confidante and butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp) Gracey planned to marry his beloved Elizabeth anyway but tragedy intervened. Apparently Elizabeth could not face ruining the life of her one true love and rather than live without him she committed suicide--or so it seemed (ominous enough for you?). Utterly heartbroken Gracey hanged himself from the observatory tower thus cursing the house and trapping all who had dwelled there or in the sprawling graveyard behind the house (999 ghosts to be exact) forever. Cool.
Then suddenly Eddie Murphy appears showing off his trademark pearly whites and trying to sell said mansion to a married couple. Wait what's going on here? Oh right that's the other part of the movie. Jumping ahead to the present Murphy plays Jim Evers a workaholic real estate agent whose lovely wife Sara (Marsha Thomason) wants him to spend more quality time with his family. When she convinces Jim to take a weekend vacation with their two kids he agrees--but first they have to make one quick stop to check out an eerie old mansion as a possible house to sell. That's when it all goes to hell. Unbeknownst to the Evers Sara is the spitting image of Elizabeth--and Gracey's ghost is determined to keep her with him at the mansion. To be fair it's the script's fault not Murphy's that he has to run around like an idiot chased by any number of poltergeists yelling "Don't you let no dark spirits out!" and "There are dead people in the backyard!" while trying to save his wife and break the curse. But let's just say he's no Johnny Depp and can't quite carry the film past its innate silliness. At least the funnyman gets a little help from the kids played by an unfazed Aree Davis and arachnophobic Marc John Jefferies as well as the hilarious Jennifer Tilly who portrays the psychic Madame Leota (you know the floating head inside the crystal ball from the ride who spouts gloomy predictions in rhymes. Love her). Of the apparitions Stamp seems to enjoy playing his ghoulish Ramsley the most while friendly ghosts Wallace Shawn as a manservant and Dina Waters as a maid add some levity to the already madcap proceedings.
The promise of The Haunted Mansion comes from its source. Opening in 1969 the Haunted Mansion attraction was considered very innovative for its time as Disney Imagineers toyed with all manner of visual effects and animatronics. Even to this day it's a perennial favorite. Director Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little) wants to make sure fans experience the thrill of it again this time through the machinations of modern-day special effects and the art of filmmaking. The film's look and feel aptly captures the spirit of the Disney attraction. Evers walks down the very same hall as in the attraction past the pastoral pictures on the wall that change into sinister images as the eyes of unsmiling stone heads follow him. He and the kids take a ghostly coach ride through the graveyard where all the wacky spirits are doing their thing including those wayward spirits ready to hitch a ride with them. Even the singing busts are there now a barbershop quartet that riffs off whatever anyone says. It's just a shame screenwriter David Berenbaum's story couldn't have been a little less contrived. While the fascinating back story cleverly answers some of those questions enthusiasts may have had about the ride the present-day scenario starts to fall apart once Evers sets out to break the curse and things get really looney. Even when the family finds out about Master Gracey's sad tale the film doesn't really live up to the imagination the theme park attraction inspires; instead figuring the "insider"-isms will go over the young heads in the audience the film sticks with trite dialogue and over-the-top shenanigans to please the tykes.