Lifted up by stellar lead performances that provide the film with unexpected poignancy, "Hope Springs" is a getaway filled with surprising pleasures. Starring Meryl Streep and the singularly surly Tommy Lee Jones as a married couple whose sexual spark has broken down into an unappealing pile of ash, the film is buoyed by the surprisingly effective direction of lambasted craftsman David Frankel (he was behind the despicable mega-hit "The Devil Wears Prada" and the unfunny mega-flop "The Big Year.") The two veteran thespians head off to the titular "getaway" in hopes of regaining their carnal passion, but in this film the true joy is in the foreplay.
As Arnold the accountant, Jones brings an honest repressive awkwardness to the proceedings; recoiling at the word "orgasm" in the way characters in other movies sell bullet wounds. It’s simply amazing how much this man can do with a mere close-up, imbuing every take with a melancholic sadness, a romantic longing, and a grumpy, unfulfilled horniness. It’s a cliché to say this, but in Jones’ case it truly applies: he brings an instantly related humanity to any role he plays. Whether it’s a murderous Vietnam vet in "Rolling Thunder," his soul-shaking contemplative turn in "No Country for Old Men," or even one of his "I don’t want to be here" work-for-hire gigs like "Men in Black III" or "Captain America," you feel for him - no matter the struggle, his face can sell it.
And while much of this film ends up feeling admittedly perfunctory - it’s as formulaic as movies come once Streep and Jones get over their hang-ups, giving us the requisite 3rd act split - the sexual set-ups are magnificent comic set pieces. Stuck in Dr. Feld’s couples therapy office (the good doctor is played by Steve Carell, who finally overcomes his "likeable cuckold" typecast to play this part with a cool, confident calm) Tommy Lee is nothing less than a rat-in-a-trap - the vivid and explicit details of his wife’s fantasies seem to register as cruel and torturous to him. Most actors would play it for the broad yucks, but Streep and Jones play it all with a sense of unearned shame and discomfort, and it comes off far more "lived-in" and believable than you’d ever expect (the same goes for their "sexercises", where the two somehow sell both a feeling of long held intimacy and total awkwardness.) Details like having them sit further away as they grow apart feel cheap, but character moments like Jones averting his eyes to a newspaper mid-session (to avoid hearing a particular detail) are exhilarating feats of performance.
And David Frankel truly shocked me with the strength of some of his compositions here, even if other aspects of his direction hardly register with the same strength. While his work usually leaves me yearning for the comparatively brilliant visual styles of sitcom TV, this film is filled to the brim with excellent shots and quality production design. He truly gets over Jones’ and Streep’s stagnant outlook with his camera; he understands that he needs to show and not tell. Who needs monologues about how boring their sex life is when Frankel can instead make the same point by giving an empty bed prominence in the frame rather than the people who sleep in it? Why illustrate the monotony of Arnold’s day job with full sequences when a single shot of an antiseptic Purell dispenser (also, interestingly, given central focus in the frame over Jones) makes the same point? It took him some terrible films, but Frankel has a grasp on telling stories with cinematic economy.
Unfortunately, all these lived-in qualities and strong compositions are undone by the most unfortunately on-the-nose soundtrack since "Invictus." Not only do we have old standard songs that we’ve heard before in 100 previous movies, but also the lyrical comments become so literal - "I need somebody by my side," we hear an aching singer as Streep walks alone in the rain - that I couldn’t help but feel condescension for the viewer. Why put all this effort into creating a strong character study with human angles and believable conflicts only to tell your audience exactly how to think and feel with your once-a-reel montages?
That’s certainly not the type of flourish the film needs to help it get through its dramatic second act, which discards the awkward comedy and quiet performances of the first hour to allow Jones and Streep (whose character, despite some late revelations, is never nearly as complex as her husband’s,) to make an attempt at highly emotional drama (in the rare love-for-old-folks genre no less.) With such unabashedly broad moments tossed in randomly, it’s hard to get lost in the story at hand. The film reaches its peak when it’s nothing more than Streep and Jones (and, occasionally, Carrel) locked in a room with nothing on the soundtrack but their dialogue (or when they’re tiptoeing nervously around each other in the bedroom, as unsure and easily shaken as teenagers.)
But despite it’s missteps (and they are ample, if not unforgivable) "Hope Springs" feels like a down-to-earth triumph after a long summer of shallow superhero tales and 3-D CGI epics. Illustrating the long-held (and rarely proved) studio belief that all a Hollywood film really needs is two movie stars in a room, the film is impossible to resist after a summer that was almost entirely devoid of stories about human beings. I simply hope audiences aren’t as uncomfortable with the frank sexual dialogue as the characters are.