Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married for 31 years, and the juice has long gone out of their marriage. Stolid and oblivious Arnold, an Omaha accountant, doesn’t seem to mind much.
Kay, on the other hand, is so desperate to have a real marriage again that she does the near-unthinkable: Using her own savings, she enrolls in a week-long couples-therapy program in Great Hope Springs, Maine, conducted by bestselling psychiatrist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). Mulishly resistant, Arnold at the last minute agrees to go along.
This is the setup for the rather annoyingly titled drama-comedy “Hope Springs,” and without Streep and Jones, the film might have devolved into a glorified self-help gabfest. Dr. Feld’s sessions are not played for laughs, despite Carell’s participation, and his therapyese can sound awfully glib at times. But Streep and Jones work hard to extricate themselves from the film’s middlebrow trappings. That they almost succeed is a tribute to sheer talent.
Streep last worked for director David Frankel in “The Devil Wears Prada,” where she played a viperish, whispery fashion magazine editor who was about as far removed from Kay as you can get. Kay is a woman who, even while miserable, which is most of the time, sticks to the niceties. There are no scenes in “Hope Springs” where she shrieks at Arnold or threatens to leave him. More than anything else, she is bewildered by what has happened to her marriage, and it’s not entirely clear from Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay (her first) if the marriage was ever all that great.
What Kay is hoping to get from the therapy sessions is more than just sexual renewal with her husband, who has slept apart from her for years. She wants to know she is, in the deepest sense, needed. It’s to Streep’s immense credit that she doesn’t wring every last drop of pathos from her scenes. The sadness comes through without special pleading.
Because Kay is such a recessive personality, Streep’s performance may be almost too much of a good thing. She doesn’t play full-out and that can seem like a diminution of her talent. But her acting here is inseparable from Jones’s, and his bullying orneriness counterbalances her civility.
Each performance needs the other to work.
Jones, nevertheless, is the film’s fulcrum. It is Arnold, and not Kay, who undergoes the greatest emotional transformation, and, even though the screenplay is often too pat, Jones gets inside the innards of this man who is both deeply content and deeply unhappy. There is a heartbreaking scene where Arnold gets up the gumption to romance Kay in high style (which, for him, means actually spending some money on her), and we can see the iceberg looming in the near distance. Despite the relatively skimpy material, Jones and Streep are so good together, they plumb so many emotional levels, that I often found myself wishing that the Ingmar Bergman of “Scenes From a Marriage” had stepped in to shake things up.
These two deserve the best, and “Hope Springs,” which is saddled with one of those infernal scores telling you just how to feel, isn’t it.
But if the film doesn’t really explore the pain and bitterness of this marriage, it’s still leagues ahead of most such attempts. Not that there have been very many. Most Hollywood relationship movies feature protagonists who haven’t yet seen 30. In the geezer sweepstakes, it may be that “Hope Springs” is the best we can hope for these days from Hollywood. Or maybe, if it’s a hit, it will open the way for more daring movies about boomer intimacy. There’s certainly a ready audience for them. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving sexuality.)