Absolutely average, but more amusing than you may expect.
I had wanted to hate this film for the selfish reason that it's far easier to write a review slating something for being rubbish than it is explaining why I liked it. This opportunity is sadly denied to me because Hope Springs, while hardly visionary, is a solid and enjoyable romantic comedy that doesn't have many gaping weaknesses that it could be crucified for.
Colin Firth plays an English artist, also named Colin (either avoiding or creating confusion, depending on how you look at it) who flies to America and the charmingly named town of Hope to run away from the crippling news that his fianc?e, Vera (Minnie Driver) is going to marry another man. As he struggles with the impact of this and a severe case of jetlag ("My hair hurts") he stumbles into town, picking up some art supplies in a shop which seems to have been inspired by the local shop in The League Of Gentlemen. If nothing else it serves to establish that in this small town, everyone is hugely nosey and gossip spreads faster than the speed of light, which are useful if familiar plot devices. It does a lot to cut down on the tired romcom fallback of whacky and totally unlikely coincidences, as it means as long as anyone in town witnesses something it is immediately known by all parties. This keeps to a minimum the number of bizarre plot contrivances that permeate the genre and irritate me, much to its credit.
He manages to check in to a hotel run by the Fisher family, played by Frank Collison and Mary Steenburgen (Joanie). While Fisher may be a goofy looking fellow, his advice as Colin breaks down during a portrait session is sound enough - Forget Vera, move on. Easier said than done, however. Joanie has one suggestion that may help, and calls in her friend, the unlucky-in-love Mandy (Heather Graham). She tries her best to help with some meditation exercises, to Colin's surprise and eventual distaste. Heeding Fisher's words, he arranges a date with Mandy for the next day.
Mandy isn't in such a great state herself though, as having reached the gardens the intended to visit she drowns her man-related troubles in enough booze to kill a small horse. While some people get angry when drunk, Mandy gets naked. As an aside, note that this is a 12A film, so there's no titillation (or indeed tits) on display here. Colin, while appreciative of the warm welcome to America, is unable to perform the necessary as it seems at least one part of him remembers Vera.
Despite the inauspicious start, they soon strike up a meaningful relationship, as Mandy helps Colin on his project to sketch as many of the residents of Hope as possible for an upcoming collection. As part of this he meets the narcissistic, self-important Mayor of the town, Doug Reed (Oliver Platt). This is in no way essential to the film, but deserves a mention because Platt is so damn funny. As with Lake Placid he takes a fairly insignificant role and make it memorable, albeit by overacting. His exuberance plays off well against Colin's reserved nature, and results in one of the movies funnier scenes.
This is a common trait. While the lead characters are in no way badly acted, they don't evolve too far from type. It's the quirky characters round the outside that differentiate the movie from Generic Rom-Com 3.
But hark! Vera enters onto the scene, saying that she has made a mistake and wants Colin to comeback to England with her. Colin isn't so keen on the forgiving idea, and tells her to sling her hook. Vera isn't too keen on the hook-slinging idea, so embarks on a campaign to win him back by essentially slandering his good name to Mandy. And now we're back on the generic rom-com path.
But that isn't necessarily a tragedy. It's predictable territory for sure, and there's no ground-breaking innovation to talk about round a coffee table (which make this a little more difficult to write than normal), but the film delivers what it promises. It never claims to be anything other than a charming little comedy, not riotously funny but touching and nice enough to be a reasonably enjoyable 'date movie'.
Although I'm not too convinced of Graham's pure acting ability in scenes where comedy isn't involved, it's possibly because I've been trained to only expect the funny-funny from her rather than any emotion. Firth plays as good an English stereotype as anyone, although you do get the impression that he's trying to channel the spirit of Hugh Grant. Minnie Driver does what she can but her role is woefully underwritten, so all she can do is wander around being bitchy and catty, which she does immaculately.
The only glaring error that the film commits is this underwriting of Vera. She's never presented as anything other than a complete bitch throughout the course of the movie, and as a result it's impossible to see why Colin even stayed in the same room as her for a second, let alone in a relationship for god-knows how many years. There must be some strong positive side to balance this out, but we never see it. This is a mis-step, as while I'd never expect any shocking twists in films such as these, it makes Colin's choice even more of a foregone conclusion than is normal for the genre.
I don't think we should be applauding or encouraging films that take so few chances and show so little innovation, but the simple fact is that this is an enjoyable enough example of the genre. Still, given the plethora of better films around this film is pretty much utterly avoidable, but should you happen upon it the quality of the supporting cast make add a little spice to an otherwise bland romcom blend.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 Tippymarks.
Minnie Driver (Vera)
Heather Graham (Mandy)
Frank Collison (Fisher)
Oliver Platt (Doug Reed)
Mary Steenburgen (Joanie Fisher)