In many of its scenes, Hope Springs proceeds like a talky play, with two first-rate thespians sharing long exchanges of contemplative dialogue, and proving to the audience that true talents can imbue stereotypes with soul. Tommy Lee Jones is Arnold Soames, a partner at an accounting firm who spends each day deflecting his insecurities with petty complaints, and who often nods off in front of the TV, his intake of media about perfecting one's golf swing a reflection of his in-the-dumps libido. Meryl Streep is Kay, Arnold's meek wife of 31 years, who wants affection from her husband so badly that discontent manifests itself in her every action, right down to the cooking of his bacon-and-egg breakfast, a daily symbol of an intimate union that hasn't occurred in years. At Kay's urging, the Omaha couple departs for Great Hope Springs, Maine, where marriage counselor Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell) awaits with mild-mannered wisdom. When therapy starts, the stage is set, and Jones, to begin with, is magnificent in his role, projecting with razor-sharp instincts the testosterone-padded vulnerability so common in men of a certain age. Streep, meanwhile, embodies yet another woman she seems to know down to the bone, a suffering optimist who greets the prospect of tenderness like a softie in a pet store.
Though marketed as round two of Streep's over-the-hill nookie romp It's Complicated, Hope Springs is no cheap sex comedy; it's a decidedly adult drama about love and sex, wherein the comedy is largely incidental. Had it been directed Mike Nichols (as was initially planned), it might have been something great. As is, in the hands of The Devil Wears Prada helmer David Frankel, it settles to be something surprising. Frankel proves himself a faithful slave to commercial flourishes, packing on the product placement and endlessly resorting to oppressively tactless music cues (if you thought there was too much Madonna in the saga of Miranda Priestley, wait'll you hear what Frankel milks from Annie Lennox's "Why").
But this less than vital filmmaker usually lets his latest breathe, and it's alarming how many sustained scenes of discourse there are in this mainstream-targeted movie. Coached by Dr. Feld, whom Carell portrays with a perfect balance of gingerness and barely there drollery, Arnold and Kay ease into highly frank discussions about their married life in and out of the bedroom, divulging, specifically, that they haven't shared a bedroom in ages. Arnold fidgets with his pant leg and brutishly dodges discomfort, while Kay inches forward with eyes and ears desperately open, clinging to every word that might reignite the flame. There are moving revelations about sexual history, talk of Kay's masturbation as a "sad" act, chats about Arnold's repressed desire for fellatio, and in the safety of the clinical setting, there's never a vulgar moment.
The accessibly mature script is the first film effort from writer Vanessa Taylor, whose television work has most notably included HBO's axed sex drama Tell Me You Love Me. For the most part, Taylor regards her characters with the kind of respect she might her own parents, and with such developments as a doctor-prescribed heavy-petting exercise, she paves the way for the actors to play out moments of heartbreaking urgency, each unfamiliar shudder and dusting-off of desire given an apt arena in which to unfold. And with every fish-out-of-water cliché, like the lack of cellphone service, there comes a bittersweet and recognizable truth, like complacent old couples buying each other "gifts for the house" on special occasions.
It's very unfortunate that Taylor's last act feels so removed from the previous two, descending from smart, middlebrow dramedy to hurried, insincere wrap-up. At the height of Arnold and Kay's week-long retreat, an awkward consummation becomes an unwieldy climactic peak, and the downward slope thenceforth is littered with concocted conclusory events, the first part of a Hollywood screenplay that feels fatally shackled to Hollywood rules. The film's anchor is its focus on the complex importance of long-term sexual intimacy, and yet, Hope Springs uses a belittling coital cure-all to avert a thrown-together crisis. Sex may have healing powers, but it's no panacea.