By Tom Charity Special to CNN - During summer, Hollywood seems more fixated on the teen dollar than ever, but every once in a while, a movie comes along to prove that older audiences haven't been forgotten entirely.
Often enough, that movie stars Meryl Streep, and here she is again with "Hope Springs," a funny, outwardly modest comedy that manages to feel utterly novel by focusing on the sexual and emotional needs of an older woman.
The promotional campaign pushes the raunch as if this were a Judd Apatow production. You can hardly blame the marketing guys for that (even if the TV spots do give away the movie's kicker), but it's a gross misrepresentation of an expertly written, sensitively handled movie with two wonderful actors grabbing the chance to show something honest about a relationship gone stale.
Tommy Lee Jones is Arnold, a crusty accountant who spends his evenings falling asleep in front of his golf shows but doesn't see anything wrong with a marriage that has worked quite efficiently for 31 years.
Streep's Kay is no feminist, and you wouldn't call her liberated either, but she can't stand the loneliness any longer. Her husband hasn't touched her in years, they sleep in separate rooms, and they don't talk really, much less kiss. Summoning all the reserves she has left, she insists on intensive couple therapy, a week in Maine with Dr. Feld (Steve Carell).
Reluctantly but pragmatically, Arnold goes along, grouching and grizzling every step of the way.
A good deal of the movie plays out on the couch, and Jones gets the lion's share of the laughs just by virtue of his orneriness and evident discomfort sharing intimacies with a stranger. Two strangers, really, because his wife doesn't have a clue about feelings he's barely admitted to himself.
Jones has played his crankiness for comic effect often enough over the years, but director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada") keeps the actors rooted in naturalism, not caricature, and it's exciting to see Jones respond with a performance of discipline and subtlety. When he does turn that frown upside down, it's pure joy, and we finally appreciate what Kay must have seen in this selfish bully.
If we're honest, Streep's also been known to overplay comedy, and yes, she does have to nibble on a banana in one of the movie's more predictable turns, but at heart this is a lovely portrait of repressed housewife and mother finding the courage to put everything on the line late in life. You find yourself gazing at her face for fleeting inflections of optimism, excitement and melancholy.
Carell, you should know, plays his part absolutely straight; it's the definition of a supporting performance.
The writing is sharp enough that the humor doesn't need to be forced. Even in these sexually candid times, there's still a residual squeamishness where sexagenarian sexuality is concerned.
Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor is a producer on "Game of Thrones." In her first produced film script, she strikes a fine balance between comedy and pathos and between the separate but related estrangements that have crept up on husband and wife over the years.
Can such things be cured in a week of counseling and carefully choreographed "sexercises?" The movie is romantic enough to have us believe it, in part by making it clear that love requires real effort -- and faith -- as well as wine and roses. Streep fans, I think you're going to enjoy this one. I know I did.
Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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