In Hope Springs, Tommy Lee Jones plays an AARP-aged workaholic who reluctantly agrees to marriage counseling with his long-suffering wife (Meryl Streep). As he fidgets and grumbles and resists the vanilla overtures of their cotton tie-wearing pop psych therapist (Steve Carell, not allowed to be funny), it’s not difficult to see Jones, in a sense, not acting. Here’s a simple analogy for Hope Springs: Jones’ character is to marriage-counseling as Jones is to a marriage counseling movie. Coaxing an intransigent jowel monster into a feel-good weepie is actually not a terrible joke, even if what the filmmakers do to him technically counts as Guantanamo-grade torture.
Watching Jones genuinely squirm through The Newlywed Game -level inquiries into his (non)sex life and cuddling prowess, alas, is the only real, unique joy to be derived from the latest from David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), which essentially plays as a tutorial video for aging marrieds that just happens to star two Oscar winners. The surreally overqualified cast tick off the therapy checklist as they proceed from separate rooms, awkward sit-down dinners and golf show-induced narcolepsy towards candle-lit dinners and Al Green-backed makeout sessions. For what it’s worth, the geriatric sex may be played for yuks, but at least it happens: Streep even gets to ’bate, although the filmmakers stop an inch before she practice-fellates a banana, while Jones hasn’t been sexualized on screen since at least The Betsy in 1978.
Also, for what it’s worth, here’s a studio product that acknowledges the depressing difficulties of marriage, particularly for those decades into their stint. That this will all work out swimmingly is never in doubt, but kudos for a scene where Streep’s mousy matron, forever in hushed deference to her grouchy man, elucidates on how it always felt like their marriage was building to something new, only to stall into miserable oblivion. Still, stray moments of blunt honesty don’t excuse giving Carell nothing to do—he could have a second life as a nonthreatening therapist, should he want it—and for sticking Streep in a nothing role that’s either demeaning or proof that she can do anything—although it’s likely both.