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The Independent Critic

Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Elisabeth Shue, Jean Smart, Mimi Rogers
David Frankel
Vanessa Taylor
Rated PG-13
100 Mins.
Columbia Pictures
Extras will include commentary with Director David Frankel, a gag reel, a featurette ("Inside the Perfect Marriage: Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones"), and a 4-part The Museum of Acting - Alternate Takes Gallery feature ("Motel Speech", "Marital Gripes", "First Time You Said It", "Feld's Second Wife")

 "Hope Springs" And Streep Joins Jones To Make This Film Special 
In the hands of two other co-leads, it's virtually certain that Hope Springs would be a dud.

However, Meryl Streep isn't exactly prone to making duds (Okay. Okay. She-Devil) and what could have easily been a laughably boring and silly film is instead a gently funny and emotionally resonant one behind the strong performances of Streep and, perhaps even moreso, Tommy Lee Jones.

Hope Springs is a rarity in Hollywood - a smart film about smart people who also happen to be older than Hollywood's usual target demographic. Even if you're not in that over 60 demographic, Hope Springs offers an opportunity to see two of Hollywood's finest doing terrific work and turning a remarkably average film into an incredibly good one.

Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) are a long-married couple who've settled into a domestic complacency that is functional yet lacking in tenderness and intimacy. They share the same home, uncomfortably comfortable as it is, but after 31 years of marriage they've become more housemates than husband and wife. As the empty nest syndrome takes its hold once their eldest son heads off to college, Kay becomes increasingly aware of the relationship's problems and directly, but rather gently, nudges Arnold into action. This action involves a week-long couples' therapy retreat with Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), a comfy Maine psychotherapist whose book caught Kay's eye.

Rather than doing what virtually every other film of this nature has done by playing all of this for laughs, director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) and his cast instead embody Hope Springs with a refreshing degree of honesty and sincerity and, maybe even more surprisingly, a surprising amount of intimacy for a film that exists squarely within the realm of dramedy.

The film's mostly widely viewed trailer is deceptive, projecting that Hope Springs is a far funnier film than it actually is for much of the time. While Frankel and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor do give the film its share of laughs, they are well-earned laughs that are borne out of genuine situations and that awkward humor that one finds when exploring uncomfortable places and feelings. What's truly refreshing about Taylor's script is just how completely it avoids the usual relationship cliche's filled with faux fights and stereotypical behaviors that cause relationships to collapse after 31 years. There's no "bad guy" here, but rather two people who've simply come to expect different things out of their marriage but who have enough of a commitment to cling to that they're willing to, even begrudgingly, go out on a limb to make the other happy.

This may not be an Oscar-winning performance by Streep, but it's a remarkably good performance that unquestionably far transcends what most actresses would have accomplished here. It's the kind of performance that even in it's quietness reminds you exactly why Streep is this generation's most highly acclaimed actress. The film's earliest scenes, if you've ever been around a troubled marriage, scream out of a deeply ingrained wound that may not be able to be healed. Streep handles these scenes remarkably, portraying Kay almost like a caterpillar who has sought safety within a cocoon but who desperately wants to be released.

As wonderful a performance as Streep offers, Tommy Lee Jones may very well steal the film with one of his most emotionally satisfying and complex performances in quite some time. The early scenes of Arnold are uncomfortable, almost to the point of leading you to wonder just why this seemingly intelligent woman would stay with him. However, while early scenes would indicate that Arnold owns almost all the blame for the relationship's deepening cracks, Jones wisely avoids turning him into an all-out dirtbag. Jones plays out, especially as the film moves forward, a fragile interplay with Streep's Kay that is quite touching even when the film is broadly funny.

The film's most satisfying scenes are those involving therapy, with Steve Carell turning in a quieter performance that fits his character perfectly and provides the perfect counterpoint to the performances of Jones and Streep. Carell facilitates the film as much as he facilitates their therapy, and he does so with a remarkable peacefulness and a gentle presence that will give you an all new appreciation for the actor.

Hope Springs isn't flawless, with there being times that Frankel and Taylor seem to be trying too hard to wring the comic value out of a scene and a couple times when that comedy/drama balance isn't quite nailed, but this is a film that will no doubt satisfy adults who've been craving an intelligent and emotionally honest film with real people having real feelings, real thoughts and real dialogue.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic