Hope Springs, Starring Colin Firth, Heather Graham, and Minnie Driver, Directed by Mark Herman, 2003
This movie first came to my notice as a preview on the DVD of Veronica Guerin, a much better film starring the always excellent Cate Blanchett. It had the tantalizing quality all previews have, of making dreck look either excellent or at least worth checking out. It looked like a light romantic comedy that hadn’t played to huge box office — which can often denote a sleeper film waiting to be discovered.
The cast was quite decent too, which also played into my misperception of a truly good film that was just too good for your standard American audiences. You have the hard-working Mary Steenburgen, the incomparable Colin Firth (the man was fricking Darcy for crying out loud), the juicily hysterical Oliver Platt, and the sizzling Minnie Driver (as the villainess no less).
Then there was the fact that it was based on the novel New Cardiff — another plus in my book, especially when that author, Charles Webb also wrote a little known classic by name of The Graduate. Add to this that the director, Mark Herman, also directed the lovely sleeper gem Little Voice, and you have what appears to be the makings of a Film That Can’t Miss.
Alas, if only it were so. And the first danger sign was in front of my face from the very beginning. The love interest in this ultimately underwhelming exercise is played by Heather Graham, who I once held strong hope for. Her fearless rendition of Rollergirl in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights turned a minor player into a major star, showcasing an ability to be both dauntless in front of the camera as well as terrifically vulnerable. From that point, her rolls have been primarily as lead hot chick who usually can be counted on to take off her clothes.
Which she does in this film in her third scene in a ludicrously contrived moment to get Colin Firth into bed with her. Supposedly, she’s a therapeutic aid, though she’s quite obviously such a flake that how anyone would give her a job in a nursing home is anyone’s guess.
Colin Firth plays the part of a heartbroken English artist who’s fled to America after his long-time fiancée (Driver) sends him an invitation to a wedding with her as the bride and some other bloke as the groom. It turns out later that this is a rather cruel joke she played on him in order to shake him out of their somewhat platonic reverie. His flight takes him to the small town of Hope (New Cardiff in the novel) where he stays at the hotel run by Steenburgen.
Steenburgen gives off a crazy vibe as eccentric hotelier, but she saddles the performance with an accent I can only assume is explained in the novel. It’s some strange Brooklyny-Jersey Shore whine completely out of place in upper New England.
The film’s real dazzle comes from Driver and Platt’s characters. He’s the mayor of Hope, a bombastic egomaniac seeking to find any and all possible ways to cash in on Hope related memorabilia including bottled water, keychains, and what have you. His big dream is to have an artist, a real artist paint his portrait so he can hang it in his office in place of Hope’s founder’s portrait. Platt makes the man rapacious and vain without ever losing a charming innocence to the man.
Driver plays the fiancée with cool English wit and a razory sexiness. In one scene, after Steenburgen sends her husband out to run Driver off the premises and he explains to her that he’s co-manager of the hotel, she eyes him slyly and says, “Oh, it takes more than one person to run this place?” There’s a world of insult in that innocuous statement and Driver is given loads of lines like that.
But all the efforts of these four actors can’t rescue the film from Graham’s goggle eyed performance and a script that asks for certain suspensions of disbelief while giving us no one to really ground the film with heart and soul. In the end, Hope Springs is a minor film that will remain hopelessly, rightly minor.