Season of the Self-Help Movie

"What to Expect When You're Expecting" and "Hope Springs" join "Think Like a Man" in bringing the human condition - in all its variations to the big screen.

Looking for answers to life’s big questions? Need practical advice on how, say, to manage your pregnancy? Don’t hit the local bookstore (if you’re lucky enough to still have one) or make an expensive therapy appointment.This summer head to the local movie theater instead.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” is the latest self-help tome turned movie to hit movie screens. It joins “Think Like a Man,” which first arrived on shelves in the personal growth section under the title “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy, and Commitment,” by author and comedian Steve Harvey.

In August, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones star in “Hope Springs,” a romantic comedy that follows a long-term married couple as they endure a week of intense therapy in an effort to bring intimacy back into their relationship. And later this year, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann examine the onset of middle-age in the Judd Apatow-directed comedy “This is 40.”

Navel-gazing with a view to bettering your lot is hot entertainment in 2012.

“Think Like a Man” was made on a budget of $12 million and has so far grossed $82 million domestically. “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” sports an all-star cast that includes Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, Chris Rock, Brooklyn Decker and Elizabeth banks.

“My first thought was probably the same as yours: ‘huh?’” admits Heidi Murkoff, executive producer of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and author of the source material that, in book form, has sold over 40 million copies in more than 30 languages since it was first published in 1984. “It did seem random to turn a pregnancy guide - with the only character (you, the expectant reader) into a fictional romantic comedy with a huge cast of characters.”

Murkoff’s initial skepticism was soon overcome. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized it made perfect sense. What's more romantic, after all, than starting a family together...and what's funnier (potentially) than pregnancy? All of what Hollywood usually has to contrive -- the drama, the emotional highs and lows, the tribulations and triumphs, the shifting relationships, the humanity, the humor, and the comedy -- is all there for the taking in pregnancy.”

Think of these films as the flip-side of box office giant “The Avengers.” While Iron Man, Black Widow and Thor save our physical lives from invaders from another realm, “What to Expect,” “Think Like a Man” and “Hope Springs” are just as busy saving our inner lives. With the danger, more often than not, being the human condition.

It’s not a new concept. Hollywood first dived into the self-help genre almost 50 years ago with 1964’s “Sex and the Single Girl,” based on the 1962 Helen Gurley Brown book of the same name. Though much of the then racy advice was omitted or toned down for the film, it was still a hit and proved that self-help movies were a viable commodity. Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)” followed in 1972.

In terms of modern film, Tina Fey took “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughters Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence” and fashioned it into the 2004 hit “Mean Girls.” “He’s Just Not That Into You” was adapted in 2009 as a vehicle for Jennifer Aniston. According to IMDb, the 1992 best seller “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” will make the transformation from book to movie in 2013.

Creating a successful self-help movie – especially a comedic one – is a balancing act. The source material must be respected and the director and cast must maintain a tone that is at once humorous but always human. For Murkoff, adapting “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” from book form meant retaining that “sense of humor and playfulness, a sense of warmth and empathy, a sense of reliability and reality...and most of all, a celebration of one of life's most trans-formative journeys.”

According to “Hope Springs” director David Frankel, playing for cheap laughs is not an option. Even if certain situations are ripe for sending up: In movie stills for “Hope Springs,” Kay Soames (Streep) is seen sitting in a bathroom reading from “Sex Tips For Straight Women From a Gay Man” (an actual self-help book) in an effort to bring sparks back into her marriage of 32 years. Kay’s discomfort is apparent and that discomfort continues as she and her husband head into a week of intense therapy.

“We approached the whole film quite seriously,” says Frankel, who previously directed Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.” “[Kay] is quite determined about trying to restore some romance to her marriage. And that involves cracking her husband’s shell. The therapy scenes are very funny. But the comedy comes out of the comedy of discomfort.”

Along with Streep and Jones, Steve Carell rounds out the “Hope Springs” cast as the therapist attempting to bring intimacy back to the marriage. “I am a huge fan of Steve’s dramatic work – I loved “Little Miss Sunshine,” Frankel says when quizzed over the choice of casting comedian Carrell in such a serious role. “For this film Steve had a very clear idea of the performance. What we talked about a lot was respecting the silences that occur in therapy. The long pauses. Sometimes silence is the funniest thing and certainly it often is the most real or the most painful thing.”

Keeping it real was also Murkoff’s desire for “What To Expect When You’re Expecting.” “It was important to show the widest range of experiences we possibly could within the confines of a Hollywood film, and to make the stories as developed, real, and relatable,” she said. “We included pregnancy that was planned, pregnancy that was decidedly unplanned, pregnancy that ended tragically, and, because there are many ways of becoming a parent, an adoption.”

Getting audiences to relate to that unpredictability of the human experience – both the big and small, smart and stupid moments – is where self-help movies ultimately succeed or fail.

“The script I wrote [for “Hope Springs”] was very naturalistic,” says Vanessa Taylor of her decision to portray those awkward therapy silences where we feel stupid, and then make matters worse by saying something stupid. “Obviously people don’t talk in perfectly articulated sentences or topics. Especially people like the characters that are not articulate to start with, or at least not used to articulating their own feelings. I wanted it to feel that way, that it was a little bit chunky and jarred."

Just like life.

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