Here's how surprisingly effective "Hope Springs" is: It will make you want to go home and have sex with your spouse afterward. Or at least share a longer hug or a more passionate kiss.
You don't have to be married for 31 years like the stuck-in-a-rut couple Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play to feel inspired by the film's message about the importance of keeping your relationship alive. It sounds like a cliché because it is a cliché, and more: It's a cottage industry, one that's launched countless afternoon talk show episodes and shelf after shelf of self-help books.
And yet, despite television ads that look alternately wacky and mawkish and suggest pat, glossy superficiality, "Hope Springs" unearths some quiet and often uncomfortable truths. The first produced script from television writer and producer Vanessa Taylor ("Alias," `'Game of Thrones") explores the complicated dynamics that develop over a long-term relationship with great honesty and little judgment. What looks like a standard rom-com turns into something akin to a contemporary Ingmar Bergman film.
The performances from Streep and Jones go a long way toward elevating the rather straightforward direction from David Frankel, which includes some painfully literal musical selections and a few hokey comic situations. Frankel also directed Streep in her withering, Oscar-nominated performance in "The Devil Wears Prada." But stylish magazine editor Miranda Priestly wouldn't be caught dead in the sensible ensembles that Streep's character here, Kay, wears and sells at a mall chain store for middle-aged women. Her wardrobe is one of many ways "Hope Springs" depicts a safe, suburban Midwestern life vividly and without an ounce of mocking.
Kay and her husband, Arnold, live in a comfortable home in Omaha, Nebraska. Their children have grown up and moved out, leaving them to settle into a drab routine. She cooks him bacon and a couple of fried eggs every morning, which he eats at the kitchen table while reading the newspaper. A quick kiss on the cheek and Arnold is off to work at an accounting firm where he's one of the partners. When he comes home at night, some sort of meat-and-potatoes dinner is waiting for him. Afterward, she cleans up while he dozes off in the recliner watching The Golf Channel. Then they head upstairs to go to sleep - in their separate bedrooms.
And it's been this way for years.
Tired of the sexless complacency, Kay insists one day that she and Arnold take part in an intense, one-week couples' therapy session. In Maine. Arnold grudgingly agrees to join her in the idyllic New England hamlet of Great Hope Springs, but once he sits down on the couch, it takes a while for him even to consider opening up to the soft-spoken but persistent Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell, playing a solid straight man to allow the two stars to stand out).
The therapy scenes are just exquisitely acted and paced, with body language and slight facial gestures that speak volumes. The silences provide tension and intimacy, but once these two do begin answering questions, they reveal regrets and resentments, yearnings and fantasies they'd never dared to speak aloud before.
Arnold is perpetually exasperated and emotionally closed-off but he's convinced himself he's content; Jones is doing his patented, humorously gruff persona but with some eventual vulnerability that provides shading and depth. He's great here. And Streep is just ... well, she's Meryl Streep. Lovely, slightly naive and goofy and always so accessible, she never has a moment that feels forced or false. Kay longs to be loved so desperately, your heart just aches for her - and yet, she also may bear much of the blame for the state of her marriage.
Without a single special effect or explosion, "Hope Springs" is the unexpected summer movie with real punch.
"Hope Springs," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving sexuality. Running time: 99 minutes. Three stars out of four.