2 and 1/2 out of 4 stars
The first clue that "Hope Springs" might not be all that and a bag of chips is by taking note of who is in it and when it's being released. If it stars Steve Carell, Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones and three-time Oscar-winner Meryl Streep and it's coming out this month, something's wrong. This non-action, finely pedigreed character drama screams for an awards-seeking late November release date but somebody high up on the decision-making food chain made the wise choice to dump it into the wasteland that is August.
The movie is not horrible, just marginal. At this point in her career, the savvy and highly selective Streep wouldn't waste her time with something she didn't at least feel some connection to and she is perfectly suited for the character she plays (Kay).
As one half of a 31-year-long married couple, Kay is dutiful, dedicated, put-upon, eternally optimistic and monumentally frustrated. With her two children grown and gone, she'd like her relationship with husband Arthur (Jones) to move on to its next phase. He on the other hand is content to start the day with the same bacon, eggs, coffee and newspaper breakfast, follow it with a dull silent dinner and then nod off in his lounge chair while watching the Golf Channel. They sleep in separate bedrooms and haven't had -- you know -- in over five years.
Jones is as perfect for his role as Streep is for hers but for an entirely different reason. With the exception of a single scene in the third act, he's simply playing Tommy Lee Jones. Monotone, blunt, irascible, often stingingly funny and pointedly barbed, Jones could have done this role while in a coma and half of the time that appears to be the case. The problem is, after seeing him in the film, it's impossible to imagine any other actor better suited for the part.
So the problem must be with Carell, right? Wrong. As the author of New Age advice books and an expensive councilor Kay hires, Carell (as Dr. Feld) is not given a single opportunity to go goofy, which is good because that's not how his character is written. He's very believable in the role and does a perfunctory, if not spectacular job being vanilla bland.
What is unique about "Hope Springs" is also what keeps it from being an out-and-out grabber. There are no "colorful" bit players offering snarky rejoinders, no problem offspring, no nosey neighbors and no "jumping the shark" desperation scenarios (well, maybe one taking place in a movie theater). For 95 percent of the time, it's Streep and Jones playing a couple approaching their golden years with intimacy issues and Carell trying to provide the bridge to connect them.
It might not come as much of a surprise that the principal partner at the promo screening was AARP, the pay-to-join club available to any American over the age of 50. The movie was also preceded by an overlong, slickly produced AARP trailer/reel extolling everything great that they do -- and there's the rub. If you're over 50 and are stuck in a passionless marriage, "Hope Springs" could be your cure-all answer/remedy. It's a self-help movie that is effective in the same way as castor oil or a trip to the dentist. It gets the job done but isn't all that fun while it's taking place.
Rather than spread the blame evenly or at least offer some degree of dramatic balance, screenwriter Vanessa Taylor and director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada") paint Kay as a quasi-saint who can do no wrong and Arthur as a cruel, semi-cad tightwad bent on being a full-time wet blanket. This approach works fine for contrast's sake but lacks the exact same kind of realism everyone involved is shooting for. This is the type of story that needs some fertile grey area; keeping it so rooted in black-and-white is a borderline deal-killer.
If you decide this is something you'd like to check out, make sure to stick around for the duration of the closing credits sequence. It gives the micro-thin target audience the payoff they waited over two hours to receive while at the same time coming off as forced and artificially gratifying. For a movie that painfully goes out of its way to be different and "real," "Hope Springs" is purely predictable, unadulterated formula. (Sony/Columbia)