Misleadingly marketed so as to play up some of its cruder elements, “Hope Springs” is an altogether pleasant surprise: a mainstream dramedy that frankly and intelligently addresses the challenges facing a couple after 31 years of marriage. At once entirely accessible and quietly radical in its intimacy and directness, helmer David Frankel’s latest picture to weigh the comforts and dissatisfactions of domestic life wisely lets Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones carry a simple but deeply felt story like the pros they are. Sony should have no trouble enticing older audiences, and upbeat word of mouth could confer sleeper-hit status.
Since his 2006 smash “The Devil Wears Prada” (which also starred Streep), Frankel has carved out a classy niche for himself, bringing a breezy, unassuming intelligence to cozy middlebrow fare like “Marley and Me” and “The Big Year.” His deft touch is ideally paired here with a polished script by feature first-timer Vanessa Taylor, whose most salient TV credit may be her stint on HBO’s racy couples-therapy drama “Tell Me You Love Me.”
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Though the PG-13-rated “Hope Springs” is nowhere near as edgy or explicit, respecting the modesty of its near-retirement-age characters and presumably that of its target audience, the film similarly turns a series of relationship-counseling sessions into a sturdy dramatic engine, and employs the jargon of sex therapy with a bracing, unembarrassed candor.
After more than three decades as husband and wife, Arnold (Jones) and Kay (Streep) have settled into a stultifying routine. Their kids have grown up and moved out. Conversation is rare, sex nonexistent; it’s been years since they’ve even slept in the same bed, a situation Kay awkwardly attempts to rectify in the film’s opening scene. Determined to break out of their rut, Kay manages, with great difficulty, to persuade her perpetually grumpy, uncommunicative hubby to join her on a retreat to the coastal Maine town of Great Hope Springs, where she’s scheduled a week’s worth of sessions with a renowned marriage expert.
Polite, soft-spoken but maddeningly insistent, Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) subjects the couple to round after round of increasingly blunt, probing questions — many of them variations on, “How did you feel about that?” — to which they respond with considerable unease and, in Arnold’s case, extreme negativity and resistance. While the appearance of Carell might have signaled an incipient shift into broad-comedy terrain, the actor’s impeccably measured turn is perfectly in line with the sense of composure and seriousness that governs the whole enterprise, at times lending it the feel of a chamber drama with an overlay of laffs.
In a series of expertly paced, written and acted scenes replete with humor, tension and clenched emotion, Kay and Arnold gradually open up to Dr. Feld and each other, describing their troubles with intimacy, their sexual proclivities and hang-ups, and the waning of their desires with the onset of old age. These moments are handled sensitively enough that the viewer can share the characters’ discomfort and still be amused by it, and Frankel has the decency not to further embarrass characters already well outside their comfort zone.
There are a few token stabs at mildly outrageous humor — as when Kay, on a dare from their counselor, tries to rekindle the flame with Arnold in a public setting — and some unfortunate concessions to romantic-comedy convention, namely the excessive use of bouncy, pop-scored interludes to flesh out what the characters are feeling. It’s a device that has recurred throughout Frankel’s work, and it’s especially cloying in a picture that otherwise understands the power of the pause, and that has two thesps so gifted at registering complicated thoughts and emotions.
Tackling one of the most deceptively ordinary roles she’s had in a while (and a complete departure from her dazzling star turn in “Prada”), Streep dons owlish specs and speaks at a higher pitch than usual, imbuing Kay with the nervous, birdlike energy of a woman not entirely comfortable in her own skin. And Jones, a scowling mass of hostility and avoidance, owns the picture; Kay may have sympathy on her side, but it’s Arnold who undergoes the more significant transformation, something Jones manages without compromising the character’s splenetic temperament.
Though the film finds its way to a sweet, hard-won conclusion, its key achievement is its engagement with the mechanics of therapy, the indignities of the aging process, and the characters’ desperate, fumbling attempts to recover something that may be irretrievably lost — scarcely the most fashionable or marketable movie topics, yet scrutinized here at length and without apology.
Frankel amplifies the remarkable sense of intimacy by keeping supporting roles to a minimum, handing no more than one or two scenes to Elisabeth Shue as a kindly bartender and to Jean Smart and Brett Rice as Kay’s and Arnold’s respective co-workers. Tasteful production package is distinguished by chilly, romantic Connecticut locations, ably standing in for Maine.