“Hope Springs,” which stars Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, looks and acts like a comedy but where are the laughs? Instead it comes off like an extended couples therapy session with Dr. Phil — only where is Dr. Phil?
If you get the idea that something is missing here, you’re right.
Look, it’s great that a Hollywood studio actually made a film targeted to a much older generation than studios usually pitch. Also admirable is a movie that tackles a tough subject — how marriages can drift into a kind of stasis that lacks intimacy or real affection.
In fact, the moviemakers is so convinced of their own integrity on these issues you wonder why they took the comic route at all. This is almost John Cassavetes territory, where two people get down and dirty in their examination of failures with each other and search for a way to reclaim a marriage.
That’s a pretty big “almost,” however. A Columbia Pictures movie made by director David Frankel of “The Devil Wears Prada” and TV’s “Entourage” is not going to venture too far into that emotional minefield. It beats a hasty retreat back into “comedy” at every chance it gets. Yet there really isn’t anything funny here.
Well, except for the scene where Streep and Jones go to a movie theater and try to perform an illicit sex act while juggling popcorn and soda.
So this movie, written by Vanessa Taylor, plays it safe by studio standards — wonder what an indie film version would look like? Yet, strangely, this isn’t a safe bet commercially speaking. Columbia is doubling down on older women dragging the hubby off to see a therapy session disguised as a movie to give him an idea of what’s lacking in their marriage.
Omaha couple Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) exist in a lackluster marriage built around routines such as his fried egg and single strip of bacon for breakfast and separate bedrooms at night. You learn later that a bad back and sleep apnea led to Arnold’s desire to sleep in the guest room. That arrangement then became routine.
Kay hears about a couple’s specialist (Steve Carell) and not only buys his book but pays $4,000 for a week-long visit to his Maine clinic for sessions. (Minor point but for that money shouldn’t you at least get a sexy bedroom, daily meals and a water slide as part of the package? Guess not.)
So the movie devolves into therapy sessions with the mostly humorless specialist — Carell has never been duller and I don’t mean funny dull just dull dull. These sessions actually portray a marriage in free-fall.
Not that this isn’t a reality for some couples, but that ‘s a much more dangerous film belonging to the indie world. This is a brightly lit, scored (mostly older pop songs) and packaged studio flick. There is never any danger of Kay and Arnold breaking up.
But there should be.
The pleasures of the film come down to watching old pros Streep and Jones go through their paces, finding moments here and there for observant, revelatory acting.
On the acting downside, it’s really depressing to see such talented actresses as former Oscar-winner Elisabeth Shue and Mimi Rogers in tiny one-scene roles. Shame on Hollywood for not creating juicy roles for older actresses whose names are not Streep.
Ultimately, the movie refuses to follow its own instincts. The guide posts were there — “Scenes From a Marriage,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” “Shoot the Moon,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — but that takes guts. There is a comic version of marital melodrama waiting to happen but Frankel, Taylor & Co. steer clear.
In “Hope Springs,” all Kay really wants is a morning grope from her husband on his way to work. If only all relationship problems could be so easily solved.
Opens: Aug. 8, 2012 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: Film 360/Escape Artists
Cast: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Brett Rice, Mimi Rogers, Elisabeth Shue, Jean Smart, Damian Young
Director: David Frankel
Screenwriter: Vanessa Taylor
Producers: Todd Black, Guymon Casady
Executive producers: Steve Tisch, Jason Blumenthal, Nathan Kahane, Jessie Nelson
Director of photography:Florian Ballhaus
Production designer: Stuart Wurtzel
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Editor: Steven Weisberg
PG-13 rating, 99 minutes