Sometimes there's no better movie than some great actors chewing on a really good script -- and that's exactly what you get with "Hope Springs," a thoughtful comedy-drama about a married couple in a slump.
Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) of Omaha have been married 31 years. The kids are grown and moved out, Kay works at a Coldwater Creek store, and Arnold is a partner in an accounting firm. Every morning, she cooks him a fried egg and a strip of bacon, which he eats while reading the paper before grabbing his briefcase and heading to work.
They haven't had sex in nearly five years, and don't currently sleep in the same bedroom.
Kay decides she has had enough of that. So she dips into her savings to book the two of them a vacation in a rustic Maine village, which includes intensive couples' counseling sessions with a psychologist, Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell). Arnold hates the idea, and the money spent on such a trip -- but reluctantly plays along when he sees how determined Kay is about doing it.
What follows is a deftly balanced three-handed drama, precisely written by Vanessa Taylor, a TV writer ("Game of Thrones," "Everwood") making her movie debut. Kay and Arnold slowly, sometimes painfully, open up to each other and to the patiently guiding Dr. Feld. They talk about their sexual preferences, fantasies, satisfaction (or the lack of it) -- and how, precisely, they stopped being in love with each other.
And though some familiar faces pop up -- among them Jean Smart as Kay's co-worker, Elisabeth Shue as an understanding bartender and Mimi Rogers as a neighbor -- director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada," "The Big Year") smartly keeps the focus on Kay and Arnold and their therapist.
Carell is perfect as the even-tempered therapist, but the real fireworks are set off by Streep and Jones. Streep, naturally, conveys a wealth of emotions with the slightest flicker of a smile, and she's constantly adding shading to the frustrated Kay. (There's a bit of business involving a banana that's to die for.) Jones is the surprise here, turning his taciturn persona inward like never before, and uncovering unknown depths of feeling.
Frankel does make a few small missteps, notably in an overloaded soundtrack that needlessly telegraphs emotions we're already feeling for these characters. "Hope Springs" works best in its minimalist moments, when there's only three (or fewer) actors onscreen, and they're all catching fire at the same time.