'Hope Springs' Review

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Columbia

Meryl Streep has done a lot acting-with-a-capital-a lately; big, showy performances with accents and makeup and wigs and uncanny impressions of famous people. 'Hope Springs' proves she can still act-with-a-lower-case-a -- playing a nobody suburban housewife trying to breathe life back into her long-standing but lifeless marriage -- and produce equally big results. She's fantastic, and she seems to bring out the best in everyone around her, like a pitcher working on a no-hitter whose teammates are inspired to rise to the occasion and make outstanding defensive plays.

Here the men offering that support are Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell, two stars whose acting track records, in upper or lower case, have been pretty spotty lately. Jones looked so depressed in 'Men in Black III' earlier this summer that when I got home from the theater I actually Googled "Tommy Lee Jones gambling debt forced to make 'Men in Black III'" (to my surprise, no results came up). Carrell last appeared in 'Seeking a Friend For the End of the World,' where his chemistry with co-star Keira Knightley was so bad, I found myself actively rooting for the apocalypse. Here, working with Streep, they're both exceptional. It's the best thing either has done in years.

Jones plays Streep's inattentive husband Arnold, who is more interested in the morning paper and the Golf Channel than his wife Kay. The pair behave more like roommates than lovers; they eat, sleep and entertain themselves separately. Desperate to feel the way she used to in their marriage, Kay uses her savings to book the couple a week at The Center for Intensive Couples Counseling, which is run by Carrell's Dr. Feld. Grumpy Arthur refuses to go, but when Kay stands her ground and leaves for the airport without him, he reluctantly tags along. Soon they've got a room (with two beds, of course) at the Econo Lodge in Great Hope Springs, Maine.

There, Arnold and Kay endure a series of therapy sessions with Dr. Feld. The broad strokes of these conversations are predictable at first: Arnold refuses to concede that anything is wrong; Kate continues to insist that there is; Feld tries to get them to talk openly about their emotions and their desires (including their sexual ones), and neither feels comfortable enough to do it. Eventually though, the secrets that come to light in Dr. Feld's office, and the way Jones and Streep imbue them with such emotion, blindside us with their honesty. Director David Frankel matches the actors' intensity with just the right camerawork and editing: keeping his distance when he wants to show the way Arnold and Kay are physically relating to one another on Dr. Feld's couch, moving in closer to capture Streep and Jones' marvelously expressive facial work.

Carell might not have a single joke in the entire film, and he wisely doesn't strain for laughs. His role is straight man and facilitator, and he makes an utterly believable therapist. When his prompts push Arnold and Kay to new levels of intimacy and Streep and Jones begin firing on all cylinders, he stays out of the way; in some scenes he's so invisible you almost forget he's even in the room. It's an impressively selfless supporting turn by an actor who could easily demand more screentime or material. He understands what he's here to do, and he does it perfectly.

Streep is perfect, too. The role of Kay may not require the technical skills of Margaret Thatcher or Julia Child, but for a woman of Streep's stature to disappear so completely inside a woman this meek and plain (she works at -- and apparently shops at -- Coldwater Creek) requires its own kind of subtle transformation. Whenever Streep is onscreen, in this or basically any movie at this point, you're guaranteed not to be bored. She's always doing something interesting with her voice, her mouth, her gestures. And she coaxes a similarly complex performance out of Jones, who often seems content to coast along on his trademark brand of craggy insouciance. That's exactly how he plays Arnold in the early scenes -- which makes his transformation over the course of the film that much more startling.

I may be making the film sound more serious than it is. In fact, Frankel does a good job of balancing Arnold and Kay's emotional breakthroughs with their highly amusing -- and even more highly awkward -- attempts to make some physical breakthroughs. In Dr. Feld's eyes, those two sides of a relationship go hand in hand, and so as the couple confesses their fears and frustrations, they are given assignments to test their newly cemented bond. These start innocuously with prolonged hugging and escalate to truly cringe-worthy scenarios, scenarios I'm not comfortable describing on a family website.

I don't know where 'Hope Springs' came from, but I wish someone would tell me so I could go there and find some more movies like it. It's exactly the sort of mainstream entertainment audiences almost never see, especially during the summer: a film made by adults for adults, that treats a serious topic -- the slow disintegration of a marriage after decades of neglect, and the hard work it takes to repair the decay -- with intelligence, humor and, thanks to Streep and the cast, some really impressive acting.

Review Rating

'Hope Springs' hits theaters Friday, August 10.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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