"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." So wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald toward the end of The Great Gatsby. Undoubtedly Fitzgerald—not to mention Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, and an entire trainload of American authors--would have been fascinated by David and Jacqueline Siegel, the subjects of Lauren Greenfield's documentary, The Queen of Versailles. David and Jackie provide an instructive example of when careless, formerly wealthy people are left to clean up their own mess.
Not that the Siegels are anywhere near the monsters the Buchanans were. To be sure, they have unpleasant personality traits that are magnified by their wealth and, later, by the loss of it. But they are recognizably human, and even--to a degree--sympathetic.
We first meet the Siegels in 2007, when David, founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts, is riding the crest of the time-share boom. The symbol of the Siegels' splendor is their half-finished, 90,000-sq.-ft. Florida mansion, the largest private house in America, which when completed will have 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, a bowling alley and a skating rink. The vast double-curving staircase looks like Kim Kardashian's dream of Marie Antoinette. In keeping with the Siegels' consistent pattern of childish self-congratulation, the house is modeled and named after Versailles.
The Siegels' current 26,000-sq.-ft. house, not far from the site of Versailles, is no slouch in the wretched excess department, complete with gilt thrones, closets the size of airplane hangars, and portraits of David and Jackie in royal robes. Jackie shows off her gargantuan shoe racks with the glee of Imelda Marcos; David claims to have been personally responsible for the election of George W. Bush, though he admits that he soured a little on Bush after the invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, the eight children in the house (seven of them David and Jackie's, the other an at-risk niece of Jackie's whom the Siegels took in) run their two Filipino nannies ragged, and a pack of un-housebroken American Eskimo dogs have the run of the house.
Greenfield intersperses her footage of the Siegels with scenes of their salespeople—including Richard, David's son from an earlier marriage—making sales pitches to prospective clients. Their time-shares, they tell Greenfield, are cheaper than motels—in the long run.
Then comes 2008, and with it, the deluge.
David's business depends on the availability of cheap money. When the credit and housing markets go bust, he's in the same situation as his clients. But they're in leaky rowboats, and he's on the Titanic.
The once-bustling sales offices of Westgate Resorts become a tomb. David and Jackie slash their household staff from 19 to four; the house becomes a trash heap, and no one cleans up the doggie doo on the floor.
David and Jackie react differently to their misfortune. David becomes increasingly grumpy and withdrawn; asked if his marriage is a source of strength, he answers, "No. It's like having another child." Later, prompted by Jackie, one of their sons tells David he loves him. "Thanks," David says. "If you want to show it, turn off the lights when you're done with them."
Jackie, on the other hand, acts pretty much the same as before. She still goes on shopping sprees, albeit in discount stores rather than Neiman-Marcus; she still insists on giving herself a large tin of caviar at Christmas, to David's visible consternation. Renting a car, she renders the clerk speechless by asking the name of her driver.
Yet here's the punch line: the Siegels aren't hateful, and we don't feel any particular Schadenfreude in their downfall. Jackie, in particular, has a heart as big as her braless breasts. Much of her extravagance, however ill-advised, is intended for others, not for herself. Some of her charity throws an ironic light on her own situation, and America's as a whole. At one point she sends $5,000 to an old high-school friend to prevent the bank from foreclosing on her house; later, she is dumbfounded to hear that the bank rejected the money and foreclosed anyway, even though the $5,000 was three times as much as her friend owed.
We learn a great deal about David, Jackie, and the people around them. We learn that David's parents were compulsive gamblers ("They were nobodies in the outside world, but they were somebodies in Las Vegas," he says). We learn that Jackie is a former model, which we expected, and also that she has a degree in computer engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology, which we didn't. We see the nannies—both clearly devoted to the Siegel family—weep about losing touch with their own families in the Philippines.
The Queen of Versailles is hard to sum up; it is funny, sad, appalling and touching all at once. It is definitely not "reality programming," but something far more serious. More than anything else, it shows that David and Jackie Siegel are not all that different from us. If we came into money, we might well be more tasteful than the Siegels in how we spent it. But though we might cringe at certain things they say and do, we cannot say we would always be wiser than they. Their interrupted hulk of a dream ended up gathering cobwebs, bankers circling it like vultures. They aren't the first to suffer such a fate, nor will they be the last.
If you're in the market for a movie about a more traditional married couple, David Frankel's Hope Springs is unusually rewarding. It features two of the great actors of our time, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, in a story of quiet warmth and humanity.
In Vanessa Taylor's screenplay, the Soameses—Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones)—are a middle-class couple living in Omaha. They have been married 31 years and are the parents of two grown children. For reasons that seemed good at the time, Kay and Arnold started sleeping apart years ago, and have never resumed sharing a bed.
Arnold seems content with this arrangement. He gives Kay a distracted peck on the cheek when he leaves for work; says little or nothing at dinner, except to complain about high prices or stupid co-workers; and falls asleep in his reclining chair watching the Golf Channel.
Kay, however, is dying inside. Searching desperately for ways to have a real marriage again, she comes across a book by marriage counselor Bernard Feld (Steve Carell), and impulsively books a week's worth of therapy at Feld's clinic in New Hope Springs, Maine.
Arnold accompanies her only reluctantly, and is more than reluctant to answer the friendly but probing questions of Dr. Feld. Eventually, between Kay's prodding and Feld's probing, Arnold slowly starts to open up, and to become receptive toward having sex with Kay again. Even so, Kay and Arnold's path is not smooth, and it is that path that comprises the bulk of Hope Springs.
Some might expect Hope Springs to be bawdy, given both Frankel's resume (Sex and the City) and Taylor's (Game of Thrones)--not to mention the mere presence of Steve Carell. If so, they will be disappointed. Except for a mildly risquÃ© scene in a movie theater and another featuring Kay, a sex manual and a bunch of bananas, Hope Springs is sedate by the standards of 2012. It isn't really a sex comedy; in fact, it's almost not a comedy. It is, in the end, a touching and observant film about the sort of longtime married couple we see every day, or might even be half of. It tells us that married love, no matter how real, is something that can never be taken for granted, but requires work, commitment, respect, and passion on the part of both partners.
Hope Springs builds to a sublimely satisfying ending, not least because Streep and Jones seem so real and natural as Kay and Arnold. With both actors, it is a textbook example of perfect casting. Streep, of course, is famous for playing across the entire range of human emotion; as proof, you need only cite Hope Springs and the other film she did for David Frankel, The Devil Wears Prada. Hope Springs probably won't be one of her legendary performances, because it doesn't require her to transform herself into anyone famous; all she has to do is present the hopes and longings of an ordinary housewife with accuracy, insight, and depth of feeling. Between Hope Springs and The Iron Lady, I know which one I'd much rather see again.
As for Jones, Arnold is a role he was born to play. Jones specializes in ornery, taciturn characters who would rather face a Comanche war party buck naked than ever show their feelings. Arnold, a more domesticated variation than usual on those characters, is cornered into showing his feelings. The tension this creates—between a man who needs to be in control at all times, and a man who rediscovers that he loves and needs his wife—is truly moving to see. Such tension is not easy to portray, and it's impossible to think of any actor other than Jones who can do it so perfectly.
Carell plays it straight as Dr. Feld, content to sit back and be the sympathetic facilitator to Kay and Arnold's voyage of rediscovery. There are some sharp smaller performances in Hope Springs, particularly by Jean Smart as Kay's best friend and Elizabeth Shue as a bartender, but essentially this is Streep and Jones' movie. Hope Springs, small-scaled and sharply observed, more closely resembles recent European movies than anything that has come out of America lately. At a time when every American movie seems to be competing to be the biggest, the loudest, and the raunchiest, it is refreshing to see one that celebrates the victories of people who live on Main Street.