Hope Springs: Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are In Treatment

It's like 'Couple's Retreat', but without the obvious yuck-yucks or smarminess. And it's good!

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Columbia Pictures

A storm cloud, or perhaps digestive discomfort, is always brewing on Tommy Lee Jones’ face. But he’s never had quite as many opportunities to trot out various shadings of thunder and constipation as he does in Hope Springs as Arnold Soames, the tightly wound Omaha accountant roped into the embarrassment of a week of intensive marriage therapy in Maine by his long-neglected wife Kay (Meryl Streep). The therapy, administered by the implacable Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell) includes a lot of questions along the lines of “when was the last time you had sex?” and “what do you fantasize about?” If you could set a therapist on fire with your eyes, Arnold would do it.

Because it is summer and Hope Springs a big Hollywood production, tagged as “a comedy from the director of The Devil Wears Prada,” there’s the expectation that Steve Carell and Meryl Streep trying to get Tommy Lee Jones to let his thinning hair down will be a laugh riot. Or maybe some smarminess in the vein of Couple’s Retreat. But while Hope Springs contains the single best comic line reading of the summer—one of several priceless Streepian moments—this sincere and moving depiction of a polite but painfully inert marriage is more In Treatment than It’s Complicated.

It’s been nearly five years since Kay and Arnold had sex; essentially they flicked an off switch and have no idea how to turn it on again. But while they haven’t been making much in the way of beautiful music together, Streep and Jones are in lovely harmony, each bringing understated desperation and vulnerability to their roles. (Jones’ duties also include harboring a lot of repressed rage.) Hope Springs isn’t an exciting movie, not remotely—its narrative arc revolves around getting a couple on the far side of middle age to resume conjugal relations—but I couldn’t look away.

(READ: 7 Myths About Meryl Streep)

It wasn’t only the quality of the acting (Carell gives a witty and sensitive performance as well) that held my attention; it was how unusual the movie is in terms of treading such ordinary ground with such delicacy and honesty. Tonally there’s a similarity to Streep’s early breakthrough, Kramer vs. Kramer: light moments of comedy mixed in with a realistic sad scenario, although of course Kay, in working so diligently to hold on to her marriage, is the polar opposite of Streep’s Kramer character, who ditched the second she felt suffocated by her marriage.

The Soames are empty nesters, with two grown children. Arnold is a white-collar Nebraskan, just like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, but with a slightly less acid edge. He’s a total cheapskate, whose main laments are against restaurant prices and therapy. Marriage to him means a license, children and “I pay all the bills.” His primary means of communicating is through silence. Meanwhile Kay cooks and cleans and makes good use of her employee discount at Coldwater Creek while dreaming of a better marriage. Or at least ways to get her husband out of the guestroom. Hence the surprise trip to the rocky shore (well not very; Connecticut masquerades as Maine) for $4,000 worth of sessions with Bernie.

The Devil Wears Prada director Frankel was instrumental in ushering in the joyous new era of the people’s Streep, in which the actress was revealed to be as wickedly funny as she was dazzlingly dramatic. Hope Springs represents a blend of pre and post-Prada Streep; every detail of Kay’s ordinary, small life, right down to her imperfectly applied lipstick, carefully rendered. Oh, the heartbreak of Kay’s neatly accessorized outfits, unnoticed and unappreciated by Arnold. (There’s not a shred of Nancy Meyers’ style glamour here. Or any kitchen porn; Kay’s roasting pan looks like my mother’s, circa 1975.) But simple as it all is, it’s clear that there is as much thought in Streep’s Kay as with her excellent Maggie Thatcher in the The Iron Lady. Kay is crushed by loneliness, but more hurt than angry. She’s so mild-mannered she doesn’t even give Arnold an ultimatum; instead she hands him his boarding pass for Maine and tells him she hopes he’ll show up at the airport.

(SEE: Where Streep’s Maggie Thatcher landed her on Richard Corliss’s Best of 2011 list)

It’s unfortunate that the movie is soundtracked to the max. Either the music is intrusive, blundering into a reflective moment, or just all wrong. When Arnold crab-apples his way onto that plane to Maine, the instrumentals soar as though he’s running through a field of flowers toward Kay, when what’s he’s doing is making his way down the aisle with the expression of a man headed to a firing squad. Sometimes it seems as though the music wants to hurry the movie along — let’s find that loving feeling! — but Frankel, who directed another movie for grown ups last year (the sweet but wan The Big Year), and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor show unusual restraint, allowing pockets of silence amid the talk therapy and for scenes of squirmy discomfort.

A word on that. Middle-aged groping is rarely seen at the multiplex. But in Hope Springs we see a lot of it, including a rather surprising sequence involving Kay trying, inexpertly, to please Arnold while they’re at a movie. It’s funny without being vulgar. But it’s also full of pathos. I saw as much range on Jones’ face in this particular scene as in the entirety of No Country for Old Men, and Streep safeguards her character’s integrity and dignity even while crawling around on her knees in a theater. The movie playing before them is French, which Arnold notes is better than he expected. I don’t want to scare anyone away, but Hope Springs, better than I expected, is a movie for grown ups that seems just the tiniest bit French.

READ: About the time TIME didn’t think the cranky routine worked for Tommy Lee Jones