The combination of Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones could probably find a way to make reading out of the phone book compelling, and after watching the badly written and aimless Hope Springs, they may have been better off. Streep has wandered into the stage of her career where she's become the go-to gal for chronicling the peaks and valleys of middle-aged sex. She found considerably more success with the often humorous It's Complicated, but she also had the considerable help of pros like Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. Hope Springs has her pairing up with Jones, who is basically playing a stiffer and more rigid version of Agent K from Men in Black.....only without any of the laughs.
A general lack of humor could almost be forgiven, because clearly the aim isn't to make this a straight ahead comedy. Often, the film takes the form of a character study, chronicling how a decades old marriage can so easily fade into more of a domestic partnership, forged out of loyalty and comfort, but certainly not of romance. The problem is that there is very little actual insight into relationships and what makes marriages work. Instead, whenever a situation arises that demands a little extra attention, screenwriter Vanessa Taylor ducks and hides behind a belabored attempt at sitcom humor. Perhaps it's Taylor's history as a television writer that prevents further exploration into the broken marriage at the heart of this story. Whatever the reason, it puts a ton of weight on the capable shoulders of Streep and Jones, who do their best with some thin characterization.
Thirty-one years into their marriage, Kay(Streep) and Arnold(Jones) have hit the point where intimacy is no longer a factor. Their anniversaries are like notches on a prison wall marking another passing year, rather than a reason for celebration. The problem is that only one of them seems to recognize the issue. He's content in the status quo of quiet breakfasts and dinners, then a night of watching the Golf Channel, followed by going to bed in separate rooms. Sex isn't even part of the equation, and for Kay the loneliness is starting to border on depression. In a last ditch effort to save their marriage, Kay signs them up for intensive couples therapy with Dr. Feld(Steve Carell), a renowned therapist in Great Hope Springs, Maine. At $4000, the cost alone is enough to get the penny-pinching Arnold all riled up, but he gives in basically because he can't spend a week fending for himself.
This being the dregs of the summer season, where the blockbusters have come and gone, you'll find many who appreciate Hope Springs for being a bit different and tackling such a mature subject. Well, that's nonsense because it only matters if the attempt is honest and credible. That's not really the case here. Taylor, and by extension director David Frankel(The Devil Wears Prada), barely sketch out Kay and Arnold's marriage in any way that feels authentic. What problems they have are never clearly defined, and it's not enough to just say they've become old and too familiar. It's during the uncomfortable and humorless therapy sessions with Dr. Feld that we keep getting hints of deeper issues, which are presented with really trite and insignificant solutions. Kay and Arnold haven't had sex in five years. Why? Nobody knows. What's the solution? Have Kay learn to give oral, which of course leads to the inevitable grocery store scene with bananas and other phallus-shaped items. If you ever wanted to see Meryl Streep try to give a BJ, this is the movie you've been dying for. Kay is such a sexual novice it's hard to fathom she and Arnold ever had kids. And Arnold is so averse to physical intimacy with his own wife that it wasn't out of the realm of possibility he'd be revealed as gay. For awhile there, that's the direction the story seemed to be heading, but the answers we get never quite add up.
Despite the weak material, Streep will likely find herself nominated for another Best Actress award. If she can win for that spotty caricature in The Iron Lady, she can get nominated for this. She's actually quite good here, and her portrayal of the quietly desperate Kay is believable and occasionally heartbreaking. But what's best about Streep's performance is the body language. The way she shivers and stews in the corner while Arnold makes some asinine complaint about something trivial. Jones has been playing this sort of leathery, gruff old guy for so long that it fits him like a comfortable boot. He's not bringing anything special to the table, just dong what he's been good at for ages. It's the presence of Carell that is the strangest of all. He's an actor who has been such a winner of late playing the well-meaning, put-upon everyman in a number of successful romantic comedies. Here, his role is mostly a joyless one, and it saps his natural charm and comedic ability. They could have put a block of wood in his place and not lose a darn thing.
Is Hope Springs the well-intentioned, mature relationship dramedy many will try and paint it out to be? Maybe. Maybe not. But if this is the best Taylor and Frankel can do in an honest attempt at exploring the marital woes of the older set, then I'd hate to see a middling effort. Streep, Jones, and Carell deserve better than this.