** (out of four)
Is it asking too much that a movie about a married couple trying to recapture the spark avoid something as obvious as Al Green's “Let's Stay Together?”
Apparently. “Hope Springs” has no interest in surprise or unearthing anything below the surface. Sure, closed-off grump Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) wouldn't admit that his 31-year marriage to Kay (Meryl Streep) classifies as anything less than rosy. She makes his breakfast each morning and doesn't complain when he falls asleep in front of a TV that's always set to golf. (“It's like being married to ESPN,” she eventually admits.) Kay, however, longs to recapture a “real” marriage, and she thinks a weekend with Maine marriage counselor Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) could shake the dust off this Omaha couple that hasn't had sex in close to five years.
In fact, sex represents nearly all that first-time feature screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (“Game of Thrones”) has on her mind. Dr. Feld asks questions almost exclusively focused on Arnold and Kay's sex life and fantasies. The questions are legitimate. Physical harmony, of course, counts for a lot in a relationship, and “Hope Springs” deserves points for embracing that aspect of its 60-something characters' lives. Clearly, years of poor communication and the resulting emotional distance have fueled the physical gap between Arnold and Kay that's far greater than the space between them on Dr. Feld's couch. The trouble in the latest shallow effort from director David Frankel (“The Big Year,” “Marley and Me”) comes from the characterization of a tired marriage without nuance (unlike, say, the beautiful and heartbreaking portrait of aging love in “Away From Her”). Anyone glancing at Kay and Arnold can spot their unhappiness; their names may as well be “sad woman” and “grouchy cheapskate.”
“Hope Springs” resists getting too cutesy with its small-town setting (a la “The Magic of Belle Isle”) or overdoing its sex jokes, though awkwardly underplaying Kay gripping cookie dough in the grocery store and considering using a banana for a certain kind of practice results in neither a laugh nor a moment of truth with the right tone. It goes without saying that Streep and Jones can deliver when required, and when Kay and Arnold put some effort into each other and relive the old days, the actors capture a shared history between people trying to prevent it from being nothing more than history. Mostly, though, this soft-peddled tale asks us to wait around until these people recognize what we see immediately, resting on simple notions of romantic detachment and tropes like playing on the kitchen floor as the epitome of sexual adventurousness.
“Hope Springs” becomes what Arnold fears ordering at the upscale diner in Great Hope Springs, Maine: comfort food whose flavor doesn't justify the price.
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