For their 31st wedding anniversary, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) give each other deluxe cable TV subscriptions, so they have more channels to choose from to help fill the silence. The couple’s two kids are grown and happy and no longer a real part of their lives. Arnold works as an accountant, a perfect profession to go with his dry persona. Kay dutifully makes him breakfast every morning, which he eats while reading the paper. She may as well not even be there. At night, they sleep in different beds in separate rooms, for reasons that are made clear later on, but the whys aren’t important. What matters is that over time, Kay and Arnold have gone from husband and wife to platonic roommates. They haven’t had sex in almost five years. He likes their dull routine and the monotonous predictability of their lives. She, however, wants something more.
The subject of Hope Springs — a couple edging into late middle-age, trying to jumpstart their marriage — is unusual for a big Hollywood picture, and it’s rarer still in the summer movie season, when actors over the age of 50 are rarely seen, much less in starring roles. The ads for the movie, which was written by Vanessa Taylor (a showrunner on Game of Thrones) and directed by David Frankel ( The Devil Wears Prada), promise a comedy, especially with the presence of Steve Carell as a therapist whose book You Can Have the Marriage You Want inspires Kay to hire him as a consultant.
But Carell plays his role perfectly straight — he talks to the couple in the earnest, comforting tones of a concerned TV talk show host or perhaps a hypnotist — which is the first real sign that Hope Springs aspires to something deeper than mere laughs. The best the movie can manage are sporadic chuckles. There is considerable pleasure in watching Streep and Jones, two actors whose temperament and personas could not be more different. The disparity in their demeanor helps sell the illusion of an old married couple who have stayed together but no longer really know each other.
But Jones is just doing the same flinty, cranky schtick he does in the Men in Black movies, and Streep tries too hard: She dives into the role of a bored Omaha housewife with the same ferocious precision she used to play Margaret Thatcher. The imbalance in the performances is distracting: Instead of a real two-hander (say, The Bridges of Madison County), Streep dominates the movie with her mannerisms and loaded stares and disappointed sighs. Instead of a couple trying to reignite their mutual spark, Hope Springs is really about Kay trying to jolt the man she loves out of his routine.
You know where all this is going. Hope Springs briefly comes to life when Jones is allowed to cut loose a bit, showing us the parts of Arnold that attracted Kay all those years ago. But the movie is clumsier when it comes to their sexual relationship: Frankel seems unsure how to film scenes involving physical intimacy, and he doesn’t have a specific point on view on this material, either.
The movie is oddly impersonal — you remember the concept more than the story — and feels like something that was made simply for the opportunity to pair Streep and Jones for the first time. Like a Hannah Montana movie, Hope Springs argues there are no romantic ills that a walk on the beach, a few pop songs and a lovely montage can’t cure.