‘Hope Springs’ Review: A Surprisingly Smart Look at Sex After 50

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones’ performances as an older married couple in crisis anchor this sweet and witty relationship drama

You would be forgiven for shrinking back in terror at the notion of seeing “Hope Springs,” from the winky-wink ad campaign that makes it look like an extended Viagra joke to mainstream Hollywood cinema’s long-running history of treating the sexuality of anyone too old to appear in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue as something to be sniggered about when not entirely ignored.

But in what must rank among the most pleasant cinematic surprises of this long, hot summer, “Hope Springs” takes its subject matter seriously, with characters so specific and well-defined that both the laughs and the drama come in discovering two older married people learning how to love each other all over again.

And while Meryl Streep gets rightly criticized for working with fluff directors — here she’s re-teaming with David Frankel, the man behind “The Devil Wears Prada” — “Hope Springs” hews closer to Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” than to a Lifetime movie.

Streep and Tommy Lee Jones star as Kay and Arnold, an Omaha, Neb., couple who, despite the recent celebration of their 31st wedding anniversary, have never been further apart. Arnold started sleeping in the guest room when he threw his back out, but even after recovering, he’s never moved back into Kay’s bed. They don’t touch, and they barely talk, and one day, Kay decides she’s had enough.

Taking out her own money, she books them a week of intensive couple’s therapy in Maine with Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell), a soft-spoken marriage expert. Arnold at first refuses to go, but when he realizes that Kay is delivering an ultimatum, he joins her on the trip, grumbling all the way.

One of the most daring gambits in the screenplay by Vanessa Taylor (a TV scribe making her big-screen debut) is that Kay and Arnold’s therapy, in and out of Dr. Feld’s office, is pretty much the entire movie. There are no subplots about their kids or about work or anything else — they’re there for an intensive session, and the audience joins them for it.

They talk about subjects they’ve avoided for years and even have to relearn physical intimacy; Dr. Feld gives them an “exercise” to lie down holding each other for 20 minutes, and it takes Kay and Arnold an awkwardly long time to negotiate how to be that close. As we see them move forward and slide backward, we soon realize that there’s no quick fix for this couple’s longstanding issues.

The structure of the film puts a great deal of responsibility in the hands of the actors — some of those scenes in the therapist’s office go on far longer than you might expect, particularly in a summer movie from a major studio — and Streep and Jones are more than up to the task. Streep has played a lot of larger-than-life characters of late, from Margaret Thatcher to a high-kicking, ABBA-singing hotelier, but she imbues this Midwestern housewife with genuine heartache and enough of a deeply-buried reserve of pluck to step forward to save her marriage.

Jones’ onscreen irascibility fits perfectly here, since he’s playing a character hiding behind defensive walls; that we get to see those walls come down, one by one, makes this one of Jones’ more vulnerable and layered performances. And if we’re to believe the old adage that 90% of acting is listening, then Carell acts the hell out of this movie, sinking into the background and letting his co-stars run with the movie, emerging quietly every so often to throw questions or assignments their way.

Frankel’s touch isn’t always as delicate as it might be (there are some song choices that are painfully on the nose), but he gives the material and his actors room to breathe with long takes and extended conversations. At the same time, “Hope Springs” rarely feels stagy or enclosed; he trusts the story enough to keep us engaged, and it’s a gamble that works.

If only for taking seriously the orgasms of a woman over 50, “Hope Springs” would be a rare gem, but thanks to its strong script and powerful lead performances, it’s one of the best American films of the year so far.