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“The Bourne Legacy” & “Hope Springs”: Trying to have it both ways 

Tony Sheppard

This may seem like an odd pair of movies to write about together but, aside from opening in the same week, they do seem to have something in common.  Both seem to want to be something while also trying to be something else, for marketing purposes, and both suffer somewhat along the way as a result.

The more blatant of the two is “The Bourne Legacy” which isn’t a movie about the character Jason Bourne, but at times seems like it desperately wants to be.  Without Bourne, the franchise needs a new hero but a new character has no brand equity – hence the title and the setup.  We’re re-joining the action roughly where we left it, with Bourne on the run (and completely absent) but with Pamela Landy (an almost as absent Joan Allen) stirring up a fuss in Congressional hearings.  This leaves the current bosses behind the various programs that have produced operatives like Bourne feeling the need to shut everything down, even if that means killing off everybody involved.

Which would be a sufficient starting point for the movie.  They need to kill a bunch of people who are better at killing people than they are – which is an inherent dramatic conflict.  And it’s not hard to appreciate a situation in which one of the targets, with all of the training they’ve received in not allowing themselves to become targets, would manage to in fact avoid being such a target.  And so we get our Bourne surrogate, Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross.

But the script just can’t keep away from Jason Bourne, even announcing at one point that he’s in the thick of things, despite nothing to back it up and no sight of him.  And in an early training scene, we see Cross in a small cabin in the Alaskan woods, staring up at Bourne’s name carved into the wood above his bunk.  Because of a need to remind us of this past character, whose name is right there in the movie’s title, the script wants us to think that this series of guys who have been plucked from obscurity and trained in the art of disappearing and maintaining perfect cover, would all take a few minutes to carve their real names into the agency’s training cabin woodwork.  By about the midpoint of the movie, it’s Cross, Cross, Cross – but it sure took a lot of Bourne, Bourne, Bourne to get there.

In “Hope Springs,” we’re given the wonderful pairing of Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep as Arnold and Kay, a couple of empty nesters who have been married for 31 years.  And, let’s face it, they had half of us willing to buy tickets based on that casting alone.

But the movie has to start out by having us be sympathetic to Kay who wants to rekindle the romance in a relationship that doesn’t just feature separate beds but separate bedrooms.  She’s the one making the overt effort, she’s the one advocating for couples therapy.  Arnold is the curmudgeon – the one who falls asleep in front of endless golf shows and locks himself away down the hallway in what used to be the guest bedroom.

And at first it seems like this is an insurmountable set of hurdles to leap – they barely even talk to each other, let alone do anything else together.  But it’s also a romantic comedy so one doesn’t go in expecting tragedy.  Meanwhile, for whatever demographic watches the film, it’s also likely to be a date movie or a couples night out – so you can’t risk alienating half the audience by having it all be one person’s fault (because most people are going to identify with one more than the other, regardless of gender).

Which leads to the structural problem – at some point you have to make Arnold equally sympathetic, otherwise you wouldn’t be rooting for a reconciliation – you’d be rooting for Kay to escape.  These are lovely, loving people who mutually drifted apart – but who still genuinely love each other.  Which gives you a second problem, in that it no longer seems like an especially difficult rift to mend.

Both movies are well acted.  Obviously, Jeremy Renner and his reluctant scientist sidekick Dr. Marta Shearing, played by Rachel Weisz, don’t have the awards and résumés  of Jones and Streep but they do work well together on screen when given the room to do so.  There are familiar faces in the film too, pulling the strings from Washington, but “The Bourne Legacy” works best when it’s allowing itself to be “The Aaron Cross Origin Story” rather than “Hey! Remember That Bourne Guy?”  The plotting is rather hamfisted, with genetic enhancements and drugs involved, to provide excuses for the action to move from location to location – otherwise, frankly, the story would play itself out in the first half hour. 

When it’s simply being a convoluted chase across continents, it’s a fun ride.  There are some things that don’t make much sense and a couple of others that suggest some editing after the fact (with, for example, a character who we’re told has no conscience but who doesn’t seem to act any more heinously than anybody else) – but it’s lively and intense.  At times it felt more like a Bond movie than a Bourne movie – but it does what it set out to do, which is to give us a new character to follow – at least until Renner decides it’s time to move on too.

In “Hope Springs,” Jones and Streep are nicely complemented by Steve Carell in a very modest performance, existing in the role of therapist largely to uncover awkwardness for the two stars to embody as they squirm in their respective seats and discuss sex, orgasms, and their secret fantasies.  And it’s fun to watch all of this unfold, although it’s almost as much fun to watch it in microcosm form in the preview.  It’s clearly a great cast and it would be surprising if they didn’t create an enjoyable experience, but the story itself and the need to keep the audience (the entire audience) in a favorable disposition stops it from being anything more than a trifle. 

This might not be quite so obvious, but for the recent “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” which also explores love, romance, and marriage with an aging cast (albeit even older), but without feeling the need to avoid characters who seem entirely unsympathetic.  Of course that’s easier in a larger ensemble than when you’re focused on a single couple, but the difference is still there.

I enjoyed both movies, more so with “Hope Springs” which is simply a treat with respect to the actors involved, despite structural flaws.  And “The Bourne Legacy” is a simple but fun action film once it puts its legacy behind itself – I just wish it had done so sooner and more decisively.  But you could probably have just as much fun at home with, say, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (also with Renner) and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (also with an awesome cast) on video.


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