A wannabe romantic comedy that's rather slim on both real romance and real comedy, "Hope Springs" is an innocuous time-passer which sees its name cast generating little on-screen chemistry. Based on a recent novel by Charles Webb, the slight story of an English artist who washes up in a small Vermont town to get over being ditched by the love of his life plays surprisingly flatly.

A wannabe romantic comedy that’s rather slim on both real romance and real comedy, “Hope Springs” is an innocuous time-passer which sees its name cast generating little on-screen chemistry. Based on a recent novel by “The Graduate” scribe Charles Webb, the slight story of an English artist who washes up in a small Vermont town to get over being ditched by the love of his life plays surprisingly flatly. Shot through with obvious ironies about Brit-Yank behavioral differences, but never really developing into the movie it would like to be, pic will need heavy marketing and canny placement to make much impact, though Colin Firth’s brand of British sexiness should prove a hook for female auds. Preemed at the Bradford fest, northern England, in mid-March, Buena Vista goes out in the U.K. May 9, with a Stateside date still to be set.

The 2001 novel by American-born, British-based Webb was the reclusive writer’s first major work in a quarter-century. Almost entirely composed of dialogue, with only minimal other detail and no descriptions of the characters themselves, the script-like book would theoretically seem the ideal work to transpose to the screen. However, what plays well on paper as a series of verbal exchanges doesn’t necessarily translate to the same effect on the more concrete bigscreen.

Helmer-writer Mark Herman has had some success in the past with character-based, British regional comedy (“Brassed Off,” “Little Voice,” “Purely Belter”) but here seems unable to make his cross-Atlantic cast mesh in any sparky way. It’s notable that the most successful scenes are between Firth and fellow-Brit Minnie Driver, where the two seem more at ease with each other’s performing rhythms.

Firth plays Colin Ware, who stops off in the small town of Hope (pop. 18,459) and goes straight to the local art-materials store to purchase pencils and sketch pads. Colin’s backstory is filled in through blatantly expository dialogue with both the store’s leery owners (Ken Kramer, Mary Black) and then with the gum-chewing Joanie Fisher (Mary Steenburgen), who runs the Battlefield Inn, a hostelry decorated with Revolutionary War paraphernalia.

Suffering from both jet lag and being dumped by his “half-Welsh, half-monster” fiancee, Vera, Colin passes out in his room and wakes to find himself in the tender hands of Mandy (Heather Graham), a flake who works as a “caregiver” at the local old people’s home, Shining Shores. After another bout of expository dialogue, pic finally looks like it’s getting into gear as the bored Mandy sets out to seduce the screwed-up Brit.

With a strong assist from a blaring pop-rock soundtrack and a sequence in which Colin careens through town in the drunken Mandy’s auto, the film initially aims for a kind of wacky humor that simply seems forced.

Pic idles along as another of the burg’s outsized characters — the ambitious local mayor, played at full tilt by Oliver Platt — is intro’ed, and finally starts to find its feet (and a semblance of a plot) at the 35-minute mark as–who else?–Vera (Driver) turns up in town, determined to get Colin back.

Driver’s assured, cigarette-puffing Vera, forever making jokes about Americans’ demonization of smoking and subtly undercutting (in the nicest way) his growing relationship with the more naive Mandy, is the kind of class act that the picture really needs. There’s an immediate chemistry between her and Firth, with each responding to the other’s delivery, that’s notably absent from Firth’s interaction with the Yank cast, especially Graham and Steenburgen. When Driver is off-screen, pic’s gears slip back into neutral.

Finale set during the town’s annual Cannonball Festival springs no surprises and is strikingly light on emotional clout. Film’s very tight running time of 90 minutes (including credits) raises suspicions that some drastic editing has taken place, especially in the last act, which scampers through a subplot of Vera being crowned queen of the festival as her ancestors may have been responsible for founding Hope in the first place. (The Welsh angle made more sense in the original novel, entitled “New Cardiff,” after the town’s name.)

After a shaky start with the physical shtick, Firth settles into the character of Colin with the kind of wry disdain he’s best at, and his legions of distaff fans should be well satisfied with his acres of screen-time, even though he’s hardly pushed at an acting level. Graham is largely bright and open-eyed, and has trouble making much of a character out of Mandy; Steenburgen simply goes for broke as the trashy Joanie but, like Graham, seems to be in a different movie from Firth and Driver.

Though the whole picture was shot in B.C., Ashley Rowe’s widescreen lensing, suffused with russets, purples and ochres, conjures up a convincingly autumnal New England. Other tech credits are thoroughly pro, though the soundtrack’s habit of slipping into deafening songs is both unsuitable to the low-key comedy and smacks of some desperation in putting some heft into the movie.

Hope Springs

(U.K.-U.S.)

Production

A Buena Vista Intl. (in U.K.)/Buena Vista (in U.S.) release of a Buena Vista Intl./Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Fragile Films production. Produced by Barnaby Thompson. Executive producer, Uri Fruchtmann. Co-producer, Grace Gilroy. Directed, written by Mark Herman, based on the novel "New Cardiff" by Charles Webb.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor prints, widescreen), Ashley Rowe; editor, Michael Ellis; music, John Altman; music supervisor, Rob Sutcliffe; production designer, Don Taylor; art director, Kelvin Humenny; costume designer, Trish Keating; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS Digital), Eric Batut; assistant director, Jonathan Benson; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood. Reviewed at Mr. Young's Preview Theater, London, April 15, 2003. (In Bradford Film Festival, U.K.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Colin Ware - Colin Firth Mandy - Heather Graham Vera Edwards - Minnie Driver Joanie Fisher - Mary Steenburgen Mayor Doug Reed - Oliver Platt Fisher - Frank Collison Mr. Peterson - Ken Kramer Mrs. Peterson - Mary Black Rob - Chad Faust
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