★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
It's not rude to call Hope Springs, the new feature from The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me director David Frankel, a geriatric drama, but it's certainly inadequate. Hope Springs does star aging treasures Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as an elderly, empty-nested couple in a moment of golden years crisis, and admittedly, the press screening I attended was sponsored by AARP and was populated by retirees, but just as that crowd was full of surprises – our host spoke passionately before the film about the country's responsibility to its senior citizens, raising high the roof beams for elderly activism – the movie comes with its own surprises. Namely, that it's a good-natured, humanely observed dramedy, geriatric or otherwise.
Streep and Jones play Kay and Arnold. Kay is kindly and smart but is practiced at putting her needs second after 31 years of marriage to Arnold's more bullying naysayer. He's still got enough of a mischievous sparkle to get away with it, but as Kay eloquently puts it to him, their next stop together isn't a graduation or grandkids or any typical milestone, only a tombstone. They've become creatures of vanilla habit that barely touch each other. They haven't had sex in almost five years. Something's got to give.
To that end, Kay dips into savings and enrolls them in a weeklong Northeastern counseling retreat with a specialist played by a restrained and tender Steve Carell. A new atmosphere with new restaurants to visit and new people to meet is too much for Arnold, who mostly pouts through their initial marriage sessions. When Carell's Dr. Feld zeroes in on physical intimacy, he touches a nerve the size of Texas. With unnerving calm, Dr. Feld keeps touching that nerve then pounces on it. Why did Kay and Arnold stop trying? Did they ever really start? Why does Arnold almost wince at the suggestion of sex?
Once the couple commits to going there, the movie does, too. (Hope Springs, it turns out, is one of the most sex-positive films in recent years.) Yes, we groan-laugh at their attempt to pull an Alanis Morissette in a movie theater, the awkward first attempt at simply holding each other, Streep's masterfully comical, somehow dignified go at practicing oral sex on a banana; in one of Streep's dozens of moments of tiny brilliance, she hears Arnold clear his throat outside the door and, for a micro-second, looks at the banana as if it's the culprit. But neither Dr. Feld nor Frankel nor debut feature screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (Alias, Game of Thrones) ever backs down from the challenge. These gropings, however silly to us and painful for them, are essential to the human experience.
Hope Springs isn't a capital-G "Good" movie and doesn't exactly try to redefine cinematic language; I overheard one Arnold in the crowd say, "It's not gonna win any Oscars" and his own Kay repeat, in the same sing-songy dismissiveness as Streep, "There are chuckles. I chuckled." And they're spot-on: From the small-town folksiness to Kay's heteronormative goal of renewing their vows, some of the film could be chalked up as just another Darling Companion. But where that disaster cranked up the humiliating shenanigans to compensate for its lack of heart, Hope Springs does the opposite: It dials back the antics in favor of truth. And, yes, there are chuckles.
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