Admit it-- you never, ever thought you'd see Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep in a bedroom scene together. That's not just because of Hollywood's well-documented aversion to love scenes between anyone under the age of 30, though that's part of it too. But while Streep has spent her 50s and early 60s as a vivacious and legitimately sexy screen presence in the likes of It's Complicated and Julie & Julia, Jones has stepped behind his jowly scowl to grump his way through his work-- whether in something fluffy as Captain America or serious as No Country For Old Men, he's had the weight of three worlds on his shoulders. So it's a revelation, in Hope Springs, to see Jones so much as smile, much less feed Streep chocolate-covered strawberries by the fire.
And when David Frankel, who directed Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and also brought us nonsense like Marley & Me, puts his glossy commercial sensibilities on hold and lets scenes like that play out between his lead actors, Hope Springs becomes pretty special, a deep and often unflinching look at how the spark can snuff out in even the most amiable of marriages. The story is dead simple but not entirely predictable, and Steve Carell's presence as a very strait-laced marriage counselor is a mystery, but Hope Springs gets by on the constant magnetism of its leads, even when the best it does by them is get out of their way.
The script from first-timer Vanessa Taylor makes some very excellent moves-- letting Streep silently play out a failed seduction, for example-- but plenty of bad ones, establishing Jones's Arnold as a dried-up grump through clanking cliches, or saddling Streep's Kay with a conversation with a friend (Jean Smart!) that says out loud everything we already know. Then again, Hope Springs is a movie all about saying things out loud, as Kay wrangles Arnold into a week of marriage therapy at the picturesque Maine office of Dr. Feld (Carell), the smarmy-looking guy in blazers and sweaters who wrote a marriage self-help book. There's a cynical version of this story in which Dr. Feld turns out to be a charlatan-- that's a much more typical Steve Carell plot, come to think of it-- but this guy really is there to help, and sits the unwilling Arnold and shy Kay down on his couch to talk out all the reasons their marriage is in a deep freeze.
Normally that's where you cue the montage and take the easy route to a happier union, but Hope Springs lingers forever in the steps toward getting there, from an exercise in which they're forced to merely hold each other in bed to a painfully awkward session in which Arnold admits he wouldn't mind some oral sex once in a while. Frankel doesn't quite know how to handle the potential awkward comedy here, leaving some scenes-- like an aborted nooky session in a movie theater-- are left to die. But the lack of comedic direction also makes it harder to distance yourself from Arnold and Kay's troubles, and as the two of them peel back the layers of complacency and address what's real, the audience is forced to shoulder some of that burden too-- and all while gussied up as a late summer rom-com, no less.
The poster for Hope Springs features Streep and Jones against a white background, no Carell in sight, with the vague promise of flirtation between them. That's pretty much the best the movie has to offer too, the chance to watch these two veterans stake out a very real relationship on screen, while muddling through a film that doesn't offer a whole lot beyond them.