Marriage counselors should love “Hope Springs,” a movie that serves as propaganda for their profession, but has been crafted to go down as pleasantly as possible. Like one of those British comedy-dramas featuring stars of a certain age in gentle, ever-so-slightly naughty stories designed to appeal to “mature,” and predominantly female, audiences, David Frankel’s picture offers a skillfully calibrated mixture of smiles and sentiment, made palatable by performers so familiar and likable that their mere presence generates a feeling of warmth in viewers. It’s like a Hallmark Hall of Fame special done up with all the class Hollywood can muster.
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play Kay and Arnold, an Omaha couple whose 31-year-old marriage has become so tired that they sleep in separate rooms and follow the same dreary routine every day. Unhappy over the loss of intimacy in their relationship, Kay decides to book them into a one-week course of intensive treatment with Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) in Maine, though gruff Arnold, a thrift-minded tax lawyer, initially refuses to go on the trip. Most of the film consists of alternating segments in which the two respond to Feld’s well-mannered questioning and then, during the rest of the day, awkwardly try to put his suggestions into practice, with Arnold finding it especially difficult to loosen up.
There’s plenty to complain about here. Vanessa Taylor’s script is reminiscent of movies like “Parenthood” in skimming the surface with sitcom-like passages giving way to interludes of light drama. The dialogue often sounds as though it were lifted from the self-help volumes Kay occasionally scans on bookstore shelves, and most of the sequences in which the couple try to rekindle their love life come across as forced. (The worst example is surely the one set in a theatre where the French farce “The Dinner Game” is showing—probably a nod to Carell, who starred in the Hollywood remake.)
Nor is the ending ever in doubt; you’ll know immediately on hearing Arnold talk about the best experience he ever had with sex and Kay revealing her greatest fantasy what to expect. Nor does Frankel help matters by directing the film as lackadaisically as he did “The Big Year,” a movie so laid back it practically disappeared from the screen (though not fast enough). And the background score goes in for cliches in a major way, with Theodore Shapiro’s obvious original music made worse by an insipid collection of pop songs added by music supervisor Julia Michels.
But there’s plenty of compensation in the pairing of Streep and Jones, veterans with so long a history with the audience that you automatically respond to them with affection. It’s actually not one of Streep’s better performances: you constantly sense the calculation in the mousiness, the wan smile and the periodically quivering lower lip she brings to the character. But though it’s difficult to buy her as an ordinary, dowdy, downtrodden housewife, she’s always watchable. And she certainly gets great support from Jones, for whom the part of snippy grouch Arnold might have been written. He’s the character who really changes over the course of the story, and Jones invests him from the first moment with the hint of vulnerability that pays dividends later on. As for Carell, he plays Feld straight (at least until the sequence added to the closing credits, where he allows his comic persona to peek through); but the twinkle in his eye suggests an impish side just under the surface. “Hope Springs” is basically a three-hander, and the supporting players here—including Elisabeth Shue, as a local bartender—have little more than cameos. But cinematographer Florian Ballhaus uses the locations nicely, with Connecticut standing in convincingly for Maine.
“Hope Springs” is a close call. With talent like Streep and Jones on hand, you’re constantly wishing it were better written and more sharply directed—that it would go deeper emotionally. And you’re disappointed that instead it opts for the most predictable turns. But if even these stars can’t elevate what’s really second-rate material, they can at least make it easy to take.