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'Hope Springs' breathes fresh air into eternal conflict

2:53 AM, Aug. 9, 2012
Meryl Streep as Kay Soames, left, and Tommy Lee Jones as Arnold Soames in a scene from 'Hope Springs.'
Meryl Streep as Kay Soames, left, and Tommy Lee Jones as Arnold Soames in a scene from 'Hope Springs.' / Barry Wetcher/Columbia Pictures-Sony

‘Hope Springs’
★ ★ ★ of four
Rated PG-13

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Why is it surprising that “Hope Springs” is so enjoyable?

The warning signs are there: It’s a comedy-drama. It involves a version of a mid-to-later-life crisis, or at least dissatisfaction. And there’s hugging and stuff -- all the ingredients for a sap-fest. Plus, David Frankel directs, as he did with “Marley & Me,” a tear-jerker about a dog. Red alert!

No need for that, it turns out. Thanks to tremendous performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, “Hope Springs” is a charming film. Not a great one, but a good one, with valiant support from Steve Carell as the therapist who jump-starts their relationship.

Arnold (Jones) and Kay (Streep) have an almost comically sterile marriage; it’s been so long since they had sex they have to think for a good long while before they can figure out when. Instead it’s the same routine every day and night: Arnold wakes up, Kay makes him his breakfast of two eggs and a single piece of bacon, he trudges off to work, as does she. Home for dinner and he falls asleep watching the Golf Channel, until they repair to their separate bedrooms. Next day, same thing. Repeat for years.

Kay has had enough. She happens upon an ad for intensive couples therapy offered by Dr. Bernard Feld (Carell). It’s pricey -- $4,000 -- and it’s in Maine, a long way from their Omaha, Neb., home. But Kay uses her own money to enroll them and buy the plane tickets. Arnold, of course, has no intention of going, and complains incessantly about it.

But if it wasn’t the therapy, it would be something else. Arnold has elevated complaining to an art form, and he is its foremost practitioner. He’s a curmudgeon and a scold, a whiner who moans about anything and everything. If it weren’t for complaining, he’d never speak to Kay, or anyone else. Give him something he feels this strongly about and he turns into a Shakespeare of screed.

To her credit -- and to her surprise -- Kay stands up for herself and insists on the trip. So it’s off to the picturesque town of Hope Springs, where lobster is a staple on the menu -- overpriced lobster, in Arnold’s view. He is the sort who, after a couple of meals in a charming cafe, decides it’s better to get cold cuts and bread and eat in their hotel room. Die-hard romantic, he is.

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But don’t get the idea that this is lighthearted comedy. It’s not. Carell plays it straight, and the therapy sessions are intense, as advertised. Arnold is an angry man, Kay a deeply unhappy woman, the extent of which is revealed during the sessions. Jones and Streep are able to bring those emotions to the fore, and make them believable, occasionally heartbreaking.

Funny, too, sometimes -- Jones in particular gets a lot of mileage out of a well-timed grunt of complaint, or prickly body language. Feld bores in on the most intimate details of their sex life, or lack thereof, something that makes Kay squirm, but she’s game to give openness a try. Arnold, on the other hand, is uncomfortable in the extreme, threatening, even. Yet Feld holds steady in the face of Arnold’s glare.

Frankel, working from a script by Vanessa Taylor, doesn’t break any new ground here. But with the help of his actors, who really are a joy to watch, he gives “Hope Springs” a fresh feeling. It’s an unexpectedly impressive effort all the way around.

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