By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Hope springs eternal in the critic’s breast, and sometimes that hope is not misplaced.
That’s the case with Hope Springs, which rests squarely on the backs of four special effects. No, not that kind. A better kind: three performers and a script.
It’s a comedy-drama about intimacy in a long marriage. So, yes, superheroism is in short supply in this summer movie and the explosions are verbal outbursts during arguments and quiet revelations during therapy sessions.
But Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, and Steve Carell are pleasurably sharp and smartly nuanced, and we need little more than a lingering look in on their interaction.
Streep and Jones play middle-agers Kay and Arnold Soames — Omaha, Neb. residents who have been married for over thirty years and, romance-wise, have been going through the motions for years, waltzing through their mundane routines and sleeping in separate bedrooms.
Oh, there’s love there. Steadfast devotion as well. And there’s no hatred and no vitriol. But there’s no passion either.
Arnold is a partner in an accounting firm, Kay a part-time employee in a women’s clothing store. The kids are grown and long out of the house.
Of late, though, Kay — frustrated and lonely and wanting to get out of the rut they’re stuck in and reclaim a “real marriage” — has been suggesting that they undergo a week of couples’ counseling in a coastal town in Maine called Great Hope Springs.
The process is to be intensive and expensive, two aspects that rub Arnold the wrong way.
Kay pays for it herself and steps around Arnold’s staunch reluctance by threatening to go with or without him. So he begrudgingly agrees and off they go.
Carell (right) plays the softspoken but straight-talking therapist Dr. Feld, also the well-known author of You Can Have the Marriage You Want, who smoothly and effectively — despite Arnold’s vociferous skepticism and their mutual and understandable embarrassment — burrows through the couple’s natural defenses, especially Arnold’s, asking them deeply personal questions and getting them to articulate their feelings for each other, their sexual habits, their yearnings and regrets, and their deepest fantasies.
Arnold would have preferred a root-canal procedure or a tax audit.
David Frankel (Miami Rhapsody, Marley & Me, The Big Year), who directed Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, keeps his seriocomedy thoughtful and restrained, letting the comedic and dramatic thrusts complement without ever smothering or overwhelming each other.
In doing so, he has concocted a movie that’s not so easy to dismiss, with a mature feature-debut screenplay by TV writer Vanessa Taylor that’s sensitive, psychologically astute, and resonant, poking into the corners of marital love and sex with a degree of candor (as opposed to raunchiness) that should have engaged audience members fascinated, uncomfortable, or perhaps both.
This film will accompany many of them home.
Seventeen-time Oscar nominee and three-time Oscar winner Streep easily makes the vulnerable but unshakably determined Kay a likable and sympathetic character whom we can’t help but root for. And Carell, the comedy’s straight man, does wonders with his limited but crucial role as a skilled, calm, and compassionate practitioner.
But Jones is a revelation in what might be a career best and a fourth Oscar nod, taking what could have been a thankless and one-dimensional role and bringing the clenched, grumpy Arnold to convincingly three-dimensional life.
So we’ll counsel 3 stars out of 4 for a mature marital dramedy for grownups. Streep, Jones, and Carell are the main reasons Hope Springs is swell.