You've never seen Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones quite like this.
As old marrieds facing "intensive" couples counseling over their comatose sexual relationship, two of America's finest screen actors are by turns silly, befuddled, awkward, and confused.
And Hope Springs, the new comedy from the director of The Devil Wears Prada and scripted by a Game of Thrones writer, is all the more amusing for it. Seeing the best in the business act out the no-eye-contact body language, the embarrassment of talking about life's most intimate details, and alternately grump or whimper about it gives this fluffy comedy a tiny dose of gravitas.
It's funny, but it's not the farce you might expect when you learn that Steve Carell is the frank, soft-spoken couples counselor that Kay (Streep) insists that she and Arnold (Jones) visit up in Great Hope Springs, Maine. Carell doesn't go for laughs.
In even tones delivered with barely a hint of humor, he reassures Kay and calms down Arnold.
"Let's try to keep the conversation descriptive … and helpful," Bernard Feld (Carell) counsels.
He has to, because the long-suffering Kay is at the end of her tether. Their kids are grown and she and Arnold haven't slept in the same bed or even in the same room in ages.
"I want a real marriage again," she protests.
Arnold the accountant is dismissive, defensive, and occasionally funny as he answers her charges, and those of Bernie.
"We're not 22 years old anymore," he always begins. He always finishes with "We've been married 31 years!" As if that wins the argument, hands down.
Jones makes Arnold clipped, gruff, a complainer, and a guy who is used to doing most of the talking in this marriage. A guy this cheap doesn't like being blackmailed into flying to Maine (most of the film was shot in Connecticut). "Anything on this menu that doesn't have lobster in it?"
Director David Frankel made the maudlin Marley & Me and the sentimental but laugh-starved The Big Year, after breaking out with The Devil Wears Prada. He and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor avoid the easy laughs -- none of these Mainers has Down East accents.
The easy laughs they don't avoid concern sex -- sex talk, "experimenting" in marriage, giving voice and action to fantasies, shopping for sexual self-help books, and the like. Everybody in town -- waitresses, desk clerks, the bartender (Elisabeth Shue) -- asks, "Are you guys here for Bernie?" Marriage counseling is their cottage industry.
And there are plenty of cliches -- a soundtrack packed with "on the nose" pop tunes, from "Everybody Plays the Fool" to the romantic works of Al Green and Annie Lennox.
Streep and Jones never break character, never cross the line into "Give me a break." Streep lights up at every new attention Arnold drops on her, and Jones, toning down the cranky thing he's made his bread and butter, shows hurt and fear, maybe for the first time onscreen.
And they land every giggle there is to be had out of these situations.
But there's a hint of real self-help in Bernie's advice, and a hint that Hope Springs eternal in this stale, worn-out marriage. Not that the old pros acting it out let on that there is.
Directed by David Frankel. Written by Vanessa Taylor. Playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving sexuality. Running time: 100 minutes.
Critic's rating: *** 1/2
Kay Meryl Streep
Arnold Tommy Lee Jones
Bernie Steve Carell