People will either embrace or ridicule Hope Springs, depending upon their age bracket and comfort with the fact that people over 50 can still desire sex. Not for the shock laughs such movies typically seek, but because it feels good and intimacy is priceless.
Hope Springs is the story of Arnold and Kay Soames, married for 31 years and going through all the motions except sexual ones for the past few. They sleep in separate bedrooms. They wouldn't even cuddle if they didn't. Each morning after nothing frisky is the same routine: two eggs, bacon, newspaper and out the door for Arnold; his dutiful preparation by Kay.
In desperation, Kay signs them up for intensive couples training led by a renowned therapist in intimacy issues. Touchy-feely stuff at first, then sexual candor. This is when most comedies whip out the vibrator and Viagra gags but Hope Springs is different, daring to discuss sex maturely and with a cringing honesty about old dogs unwilling to learn new tricks. I'm not even sure it's a comedy, steeped in embarrassments as it is.
Kay and Arnold live with unspoken feelings, and few actors non-verbally convey emotions better than Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. Well-timed pauses, slight shifts in posture and fleeting expressions say everything Kay and Arnold won't to each other.
Their expert performances are expected and welcome. Not so much the misleading casting of comedian Steve Carell as the therapist, Dr. Bernard Feld. This is a sounding board character, here only to pose provocative questions in solemn, non-judgmental fashion. There isn't a single joke in Carell's script, and while we don't necessarily need any it's jarring if you're expecting them.
Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) keeps his movie as constrained in spirit as Kay and Arnold are in their relationship. Even scenes tinged with erotic acts — Kay attempts to pleasure Arnold in a movie theater, for example — are underscored with sad frustration. This isn't breezy entertainment, and while Vanessa Taylor's screenplay is insightful it also feels stagy at times, locked into one set or the other for extended conversations.
Since Carell is held back and co-stars Elisabeth Shue, Jean Smart and Mimi Rogers are only briefly seen, the workload falls to Streep and Jones. You could do a lot worse in choosing two actors to observe for 100 minutes. As Kay and Arnold lurch toward intimacy, the roles bring out a playful side seldom seen in Streep and practically never in Jones, his signature surliness melting into disarming smiles and tenderness.
It is a pairing of contrasting actors that should've happened sooner — A Prairie Home Companion kept them apart by design — and should happen again, soon.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.