Monday, August 20, 2012

No More Stunt Acting, Please

By Lars Trodson

One of the problems mainstream movies have today is that they often have the production values of an old-style TV movie. I’m talking about straight ahead dramas or comedies  –  not movies that require extraterrestrial landscapes or large-scale detonations. I was reminded of this when I watched “Hope Springs.”

This is a film with two legitimate movie stars and one very popular actor trying to become one: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell. But it looks like it was shot on the back lot of an old studio. There are hardly any other people in the film besides the stars (one very short scene with Elizabeth Shue notwithstanding) and the entire enterprise looks decidedly unlived in.

The reason I bring this up is because the production values here almost  –  I say almost, but not quite  –  diminish the accomplishments of the two stars. Streep and Jones contribute two master performances in what otherwise looks like the setting for a Brady Bunch TV movie. Since there’s no real-ness to the surroundings – nothing that actually looks or feels or moves like the real world behind them – you can almost miss the fact that Streep and Jones are just oozing life. These are two remarkable performances, but because they’re trapped in this airless environment, you might not realize that.

This movie is supposed to take place in Nebraska and Maine. We never see the landscape in either locale, so it could be anywhere, really. The house interiors, the office interiors, the restaurant interiors and the street exteriors all look like sitcom sets. It all looks like stock photography. These movies are to the real world that McMansions are to real houses.

But in “Hope Springs” – a decidedly bland title, to boot – there are two real people walking through it.

It’s getting redundant for Meryl Streep to get nominated for an Oscar,so in all likelihood she will be passed over next year. That would be a shame. She won her third trophy this year for participating in what I have begun to call “stunt acting” – that is, big actors playing big showy roles based on real people. (Streep won for playing Margaret Thatcher.) The Academy – as I’ve noted in this space before – has become overly fond of handing out Oscars to people who do an excellent job at mimicry. Look at Jamie Foxx or Cate Blanchette or Forrest Whitaker or Philip Seymour Hoffman or Helen Mirren or Sean Penn. These are just a few of the people who have won Hollywood’s biggest award for playing real people. (The list of people nominated for real-life roles is even longer.)

As I said, this is a recent trend. So the idea that Jones and Streep have created two whole people that did not exist before is a remarkable achievement – and it’s even more astonishing given just how familiar these two people are to audiences.

Streep has been a movie star for more than 30 years. She’s as familiar as anyone who has ever been in the movies. And yet here she is, in “Hope Springs”, looking, dare I say it, a little dowdy. She’s quiet, reserved, repressed, unhappy. She walks without grace. Her look and her voice are halting (she speaks in a very quiet mid-western voice.) How can it be that 20 minutes into the movie you are no longer watching Meryl Streep but rather looking at a woman who is trying to figure out her life? Her name is Kay.

Tommy Lee Jones plays her husband Arnold – or Arnie – and he’s a grump. It doesn’t hurt that as Jones has aged he looks more and more like a Muppet, but his face is real and lived-in. When he says little grumpy things that makes his wife laugh you can see what attracted them to each other more than 30 years ago. And the frustration he feels when being asked sensitive questions by their couples therapist, Dr. Feld (Carell), feels unforced. The scene in the movie theater where they try to revive their moribund sex life focuses primarily on Jones’ face, and his acting here alone should be preserved under glass. It’s that classic. It’s amazing, really.

I suppose that many people will feel as though there isn’t enough here to warrant Best Actor nods from the Academy, but I think the emotions they portray have grandeur and scope. The emotions feel very real to me in “Hope Springs”, even if their surroundings do not.