There’s one fault a woman will never forgive in a man, and that’s miserliness. Tommy Lee Jones’ Arnold in Hope Springs is a tightfisted Omaha accountant. Arnold withholds even the best free thing in life. Thus, his wife of 31 years (the last five have been sexless) drags him to a couples’ retreat out in coastal Maine to work on their marriage under the guidance of a shrink, played with admirable colorlessness by Steve Carell.
The audience that made Midnight in Paris a hit will want to come out and see the results. Streep’s thespian heft ensures this isn’t dry Neil Simon fare; it’s more of a drama-comedy than a comedy-drama.
Of course, any actress so often called the greatest actress alive will have some ham in her. She’s overdrabbed in Costco eyeglasses and a $25 haircut. Streep faces a part that demands getting alarmingly physical, and she handles that fine. But she also throws herself at the mercy of the audience in a few moments of low comedy: fondling a salami at the supermarket, and oohing at that old burlesque fave, the ejaculating Champagne bottle.
And yet this movie is a winner. Jones’ bottled-in older man verges on bastardry that would credit a Nicholas Ray movie, and his crumbliness end-runs the usual equation of “woman’s picture=man’s fault.” His performance here is a credit to the amount of hurt that goes on in a seemingly long and tranquil marriage. Arnold’s side of the picture is painted in full, either in resentment of the aggravatingly calm shrink or of his wife (“All those goddamn years,” he swears).
Those behind the scenes have come through as well. Scriptwriter Vanessa Taylor is a longtime TV writer, but flatness only seems apparent on the peripheral characters here, including a squandered Elisabeth Shue. Director David Frankel (also loads of TV, plus Marley and Me and The Devil Wears Prada) once again takes the mayonnaise out of domestic comedy.
‘Hope Springs’ opens Wednesday, Aug. 8, in wide release.