Somewhere on the spectrum of grumpy old men, between Ed Asner’s ornery and lovable Carl of Up, and the Clint Eastwood’s violent Walt from Gran Torino, lies Tommy Lee Jones, a man with a map of the world on his face, charming and thoughtful.
He brings a wrinkled mug, furrowed brow, and plenty of quizzical looks to Hope Springs, a cute and simple romantic comedy that tries to thrive off the faces of its stars and the awkwardness of sex. Content with the current state of his 30-year marriage, one that finds him sleeping in a separate bed, having his morning eggs and coffee, and falling asleep watching golf, Arnold moves throughout his day by rote.
His wife Kay, played by Meryl Streep, meanwhile is less than thrilled, particularly it would seem about the fact they haven’t had sex in several years. With much reluctance, and continuously sarcasm, Arnold agrees to join Kay for couples counseling, leaving their quaint Nebraska suburb for an even quainter Maine town. A one Doctor Feld is their reason for going, and he is, among many other people and places, an object of Arnold’s scorn.
Tommy Lee Jones is the consummate curmudgeon, bringing out the cranky in all of us. It seems to come so naturally to him, as if his whole life children were playing on his lawn without permission. At the same time, when he arrives at a lucid moment, it is believable and winning – you can’t help but root for him, but you know he’ll snap at you for feeling any sympathy.
Meryl Steep as expected holds her own on screen, giving and taking in turn, giving a wry subtle smirk at each jab. It is Steve Carell, however, as Dr. Feld that seems out of place. He plays things straight, which is great at, but him playing straight usually only serves to set up the audience for a barrage of jokes. Here, though, he is underutilized and miscast, playing nothing more than a mediator between two very talented actors, both possessive of comedic talent that would have been fun to see play off Carell.
As expected, Arnold’s stubborn nature is bred from the discomfort of trying new things and opening lines of communication, while Kay is more willing, but hesitant about embarrassing herself. The couple quickly learns that their problems stem from a lack of intimacy and sex, an issue that makes for some very frank discussions and resulting activities not often depicted in movies without being at the end of a joke.
It is an awkward and honest look at sex, funny and serious. Though the music is poorly chosen-it seems meant to convey a tone that the very fine actors have no problem doing on their own-the film neither becomes a silly comedy nor a melodramatic romance. Everything that happens, including some very well-timed jokes, (and one with a long set up and great payoff), is exactly within a measurable realm of possibility. I mean, everyone’s done that in a movie theatre, right?