One can understand what director Mike Nichols might have seen in "Hope Springs" back when he was attached to the project. The man has mined marital dysfunction from the start of his career with 1966's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" all the way up to 2004's "Closer," and Vanessa Taylor's script generally takes a sensitive approach to the stagnation of a thirty-year marriage.
Alas, for whatever reason, Nichols stepped out and David Frankel stepped in, and what we're left with is essentially the kind of relationship dramedy one might expect from the director of "The Big Year," "Marley & Me" and "The Devil Wears Prada." When it works, it works well, but then the broader bits and saccharine songs kick in to keep the tone from ever being too graceful and grown-up for its own good.
Kay (Meryl Streep) is quietly suffering in her 31-year-old marriage to Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). She and Arnold sleep in separate bedrooms now that their kids have moved out, and for this Omaha couple, the spark is essentially gone. In a last-ditch effort to revive their romance, Kay insists on taking a chance on intensive couples counseling in the effusively named town of Great Hope Springs, Maine, and for one week, Arnold begrudgingly agrees to re-examine their relationship under the guidance of Dr. Bernie Feld (a restrained Steve Carell).
"Hope Springs" often finds its groove in these therapy sessions, seemingly modeled on Taylor's own work with the HBO series "Tell Me You Love Me." Although the scenes can feel roughly like watching a poodle, a bulldog and a golden retriever yip and growl about marriage and sex to one another, the fantasies, fond memories and frustrations acknowledged along the way make for the film's more satisfying comedy and pathos. Sometimes, the issues are unbalanced between husband and wife, and their resolutions or lack of them can feel more convenient than convincing, but like Arnold tagging along for the trip, the fact that the film is trying at all to tackle adult concerns rather than introducing the dramatic crutch of infidelity feels like a victory all its own.
However, once Arnold and Kay venture outside of Dr. Feld's office, their prudish attitudes towards sex seem awfully anachronistic. Kay balks at the prospect of purchasing self-help books or bananas (for practice on her non-existent oral skills) just as her cheapskate husband gripes about small-town price gouging and the locals (including Elisabeth Shue as a one-scene bartender) all note their lovelorn out-of-towner status. When a public attempt at below-the-belt affection goes awry, it's a little funny and a bit uncomfortable, but it mostly deserves credit for not reaching to "American Pie"-like extremes of embarrassment. The sex talk offered here is meant to make your grandma titter, not gasp.
Streep approaches her role of Midwestern housewife with a certain daintiness, but her performance proves vital to communicating the delicacy of what's at stake. Jones' grump routine is something of a shortcut for his character's initial reluctance, and although seeing him warm back up to the prospect of a happy marriage brings with it a certain enjoyment, it only further delineates the extent to which Arnold's dysfunctions are ultimately ill-explained. Carell's sage turn, while certainly against type, feels the most one-dimensional of all; it is a performance almost entirely defined by his refusal to blink as he incessantly questions the two leads. A lesser film might have delved into his home life and shown how this couple helped him to heal his own marriage, but to see Carell operate at any level beyond that of calm inquisition would have been welcome.
In small ways, Frankel's direction proves more distinctive than usual, as he uses the 2.35:1 aspect ratio to nicely emphasize distance whenever Streep and Jones are together and isolation when they're apart, occasionally opting for longer takes as their naturally uneasy efforts to reconnect during evening "exercises" play out. On the other hand, once it's time for a montage, the staggeringly bland soundtrack selections are almost always distracting in their tendency to blatantly reinforce the emotional pitch of any given scene.
That's the general ebb-and-flow, give-and-take rhythm of "Hope Springs." Much like the marriage with which it's concerned, the more it tries to spice things up, the harder it becomes to enjoy. The moments when either works, though, really ought to count for something.