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Hope Springs

The trailers for Hope Springs might lead you to believe it's a romantic comedy about a couple trying to jumpstart their sexless marriage, but it causes more empathetic cringing than chuckles. Audiences will be drawn to Hope Springs by its stars Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell, and Streep's track record of pleasing summer movies like Julie & Julia and Mamma Mia! that offer a respite from the blockbusters flooding theaters. Despite what its marketing might have you believe, Hope Springs isn't a rom-com. The film is a disarming mixture of deeply intimate confessions by a married couple in the sanctuary of a therapist's office, awkwardly honest attempts by that couple to physically reconnect, and incredibly sappy scenes underscored by intrusive music. Boldly addressing female desire, especially in older women, it's hard not to give the movie extra credit for what writer Vanessa Taylor's script is trying to convey and its rarity in mainstream film. The ebb and flow of intimacy and desire in a long-term relationship is what drives Hope Springs, and while there are plenty contrived moments and unresolved issues, it is frankly surprising and surprisingly frank. It's a summer release from a major studio with high caliber stars aimed squarely at the generally underserved 50+ audience, addressing the even more taboo topic of that audience's sex life.

Streep plays Kay, a suburban wife who's deeply unsatisfied emotionally and sexually by her marriage to Arnold. Arnold, who is played by Tommy Lee Jones as his craggiest, sleeps in a separate bedroom now that their kids have left the nest; he's like a stone cold robot emotionally and physically, and Kay tiptoes around trying to make him happy even as he ignores her every gesture. One of the most striking scenes in the movie is at the very beginning when Kay primps and fusses over her modest sleepwear in the hopes of seducing her husband. Streep makes it obvious that this isn't an easy thing for Kay; it takes all her guts to try and wordlessly suggest sex to her husband, and when she's shot down, it hurts to watch. This isn't a one time disconnect between their libidos; this is an ongoing problem that leaves Kay feeling insecure and undesirable.

After a foray into the self-help section of her bookstore, Kay finds a therapist who holds week-long intensive couples' therapy sessions in Good Hope Springs, ME, and in a seemingly unprecedented moment of decisiveness, she books a trip for the couple. Arnold, of course, is having none of it, but he eventually comes along for the ride. That doesn't mean he's up for answering any of Dr. Feld's questions, though. To be fair, Dr. Feld (Carell) is asking the couple deeply intimate questions, so if Arnold is comfortable foisting his amorous wife off with the excuse he had pork for lunch, it's not so far-fetched to believe he'd be angry when Feld asks him about his fantasy life or masturbation habits.

Although Arnold gets a pass on some of his issues, Kay is forthright about why and how she's dissatisfied. When Dr. Feld asks her if she masturbates, she says she doesn't because it makes her too sad. Kay offers similar revelations; she's willing to bare it all to revive her marriage, while Arnold thinks the fact that they're married at all means they must be happy. Carell's Dr. Feld is soothing and kind (even a bit bland), but it's always a pleasure to see him play it straight.

It's subversive for a mega-watt star to play a character that talks about how sexually unsatisfied she is and how unsexy she feels with the man she loves most in the world. The added taboo of Kay and Arnold's age adds that much more to the conversation. Kay and Arnold's attempts at intimacy are emotionally raw and hard to watch. Even when things get funny, they're mostly awkward funny, not ha-ha funny.

The rest of the movie is a little uneven, wrapped up tightly and happily by the end. Their time spent soul-searching alone is a little cheesy, especially when Kay ends up in a local bar where she gets a little dizzy on white wine while dishing about her problems to the bartender (Elisabeth Shue). Somewhere along the line, what probably started out as a character study ended up as a wobbly drama that pushes some boundaries but eventually lets everyone off the emotional hook in favor of a smoothed-over happy ending. Still, its disarming moments and performances almost balance it out. Although its target audience might be dismayed to find it's not as light-hearted as it would seem, Hope Springs offers up the opportunity for discussion about sexuality and aging at a time when books and films like 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Mike are perking up similar conversations. In the end, that's a good thing. rated this film 3 stars.