Mainstream comedies typically trivialize psychotherapy. When I heard that Hope Springs depicted Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as middle-aged spouses spending a week in intensive couples counseling, I fully expected the film to be nothing but clownish shrinks, nonsensical exercises, and Viagra mishaps.
Turns out I was totally off base. By the standards of Hollywood humor, Hope Springs takes such a realistic view of marital therapy, it's almost defiantly low-key. Much of the film simply plunks Streep and Jones on the same couch as Steve Carell's soft-spoken psychologist asks probing questions about their personal lives.
Hope Springs sets a light tone but seldom goes for laughs at the expense of plausibility. For the most part, director David Frankel keeps out of the way of his leads, who've made careers out of investing little details with wit and significance.
Streep and Jones play empty nesters Kay and Arnold Soames who no longer share the same bedroom. Mourning the loss of their past romance, Kay discovers a marital rescue book by Dr. Bernie Feld (Carell) and signs up for a weeklong spouse's session in a small Maine tourist trap. Arnold, an Omaha accountant who dozes off before the same golf infomercial every night, scoffs at the idea of sharing their lives with a stranger. He acquiesces when Kay proves prepared to fly to Maine without him.
As grumpy old men go, Arnold makes Walter Matthau look like Father Christmas, and complains about every aspect of their trip. Even Dr. Feld's superficial questions make him squirm, so it's no surprise when the therapist's emphasis on their sex lives makes Arnold fly off the handle. As their sessions progress, however, Dr. Feld reveals that Arnold's emotional withdrawal coincided with Fay's sexual inhibitions. At one point Kay admits her discomfort with oral sex. When Dr. Feld asks "Giving or receiving?" she blurts "Huh?" as if unaware an option was on the table.
The Soames' days are split between therapy in the morning and otherwise arguing or playing tourist. The film avoids building contrived subplots about, say, Elisabeth Shue's friendly bartender. It wouldn't take much to turn Vanessa Taylor's script into a stage play with three actors and just a few sets. Consequently, it's repetitious and visually drab, with an irksome habit of using soulful songs by the likes of Annie Lennox to do the emotional heavy lifting.
Streep and Jones, however, play charmingly off each other and shoulder the script's demands without any extra help. Their physicality alone can be amusing, particularly when Jones groggily slouches off to sleep, or Streep shyly visits his room for companionship in an apologetic posture. When Dr. Feld prompts them to recall their early attraction and courtship, they chuckle like schoolkids. As they self-consciously attempt to renew their intimacy, the jokes come naturally from the would-be seductive situations.
Hope Springs isn't above finding humor in AARP-card carriers contemplating oral sex, but overall maintains respect for its characters, its audience, and the profession of marital counseling. The film runs a risk of being upstaged by brassier comedies and more ambitious relationship dramas, but deserves credit for seeking epiphanies in the unsung minutia of ordinary lives.