Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones may be the ostensible stars of "Hope Springs," but, really, isn't it all about Stonington borough?
Yes, the village plays the supporting role of Great Hope Springs in the film, which opens Wednesday. It serves as the picturesque stand-in for the fictional Maine town where the characters played by Streep and Jones retreat for some serious marriage counseling.
When you screen "Hope Springs" — as I did at a preview in Plainville — you'll find yourself spending much time thinking: Ooooh, what a lovely sweeping shot of the borough shore! See how quaint Water Street looks!
True, most of the scenes are interiors, particularly inside the office of the marriage therapist played by Steve Carell. But Stonington does pop up, like Hitchcock making those quick cameo appearances in his own films.
To wit: After a particularly distressing therapy session, Streep flees, weeping, from Carell's office — which is right off Cannon Square. She seeks refuge at Skipper's Dock. (Skipper's Dock looks quite lovely, with a couple of scenic exterior shots and a prominent appearance by its sign.) Inside, Streep sips wine as she unloads to the bartender, played by Elisabeth Shue. While she's there, a somber Jones wanders down to the Old Lighthouse Museum.
Other local sites have their star-making moments, albeit under fictitious names. The Inn at Stonington morphs into Captain Jack's Inn, where the couple tries to reignite their marital flame. Noah's has been recast as the Nor'easter Diner, where Jones' cheapskate character complains about how expensive the dishes are. The interior of Noah's has been decked out with touristy lobsters and netting on the walls, and the exterior mural — which has remained, post-filming — gets its own close-up.
It's not just the borough that materializes. Mystic does, too, in the form of the Econolodge, which is the place Streep and Jones stay. It's depicted as, shall we say, a little drab and underwhelming — a place the perpetually penny-pinching Jones chooses to stay. In one shot, a garbage truck empties a Dumpster in the parking lot. After a disastrous night, Streep and Jones woefully pack their luggage into their car trunk outside the Econolodge.
The thing is, scenes zoom by quickly. A shot of Streep and Jones strolling down Water Street took ages to film, but it zips by onscreen. It'll make you want to get a DVD version so you can freeze-frame and rewind — wait, is that someone I know in the far distance of that scene? Is that the house I think it is?
The camera doesn't zero in on extras with close-ups the way, say, director Ben Affleck did when establishing the Charlestown, Mass., atmosphere for "The Town." Instead, they truly are background figures, for the most part.
As for the film itself: It's more serious than the trailer would indicate. Yes, it's laced with comic moments, but it's dramatic, too, as the specter of sadness hangs over this 31-year marriage that has sagged into indifference.
"Hope Springs" is very much about the couple trying to get their sexual groove back, and the film doesn't stint on explicit talk. In other words, beware of bringing youngsters to the movie just because it was partially filmed here and just because it's rated PG-13. In addition to frank talk during the therapy sessions — Carell asks about oral sex, orgasms and masturbation — there's a scene in which Streep starts trying to, shall we say, pleasure Jones in a movie theater. (The movie marquee for that scene, proclaiming that a foreign film fest was running, was installed on Water Street specifically for "Hope Springs.")
The film works best as a showcase for Meryl Streep's acting. I guess, really, what movie wouldn't work best as a showcase for the best actress alive? Director David Frankel lingers on close-ups of her, capturing every second of hope and hurt.
While Streep's character hungers for a more meaningful marriage, Jones' is emotionally closed off, content to watch TV solo and sleep in separate bedrooms. While the evolution of Jones' character feels too rushed near the end, the actor conveys the emotions bubbling under the taciturn exterior.
Carell, meanwhile, gives a contained, noncomic performance as the therapist.
Streep has been on quite a popularity roll lately. How will "Hope Springs" play into that? Will it draw large audiences around the nation? Only time — and box-office receipts — will tell. But you can bet southeastern Connecticut residents will flood cinemas and happily search for familiar places and people.