08/09/2012 11:19 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What I Learned From Hope Springs

Operating on the assumption that there are moviegoers out there whose needs currently aren't being met by the steady summer stream of remakes, sequels and shootouts, comes Hope Springs, about a Nebraskan housewife whose needs aren't being met by her husband, Tommy Lee Jones. (Apparently Men in Black 3 didn't do the trick for either of them.)

After 31 years of marriage, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Jones) have fallen into a depressing routine -- she cooks him meals, and he falls asleep to The Golf Channel until it's time for the two to retreat to their separate bedrooms. And so, at Kay's insistence and despite Arnold's reluctance, the two head to couples counseling in an attempt to reignite their long-last spark.

Meanwhile, Hope Springs reunites The Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel with Streep in similar hopes that the two can recapture some of their old magic in this impressively frank examination of a marriage gone stale. And so, we're treated to watching national treasures Streep and Jones go to therapy for slightly under two hours. As a public service, I attempted to sort out Hope Springs' various breakthroughs.

A new cable subscription is not an acceptable anniversary gift: The same goes for a hot water heater (or tickets to go see Hope Springs, for that matter). Apparently nothing screams "We need couples counseling" like a present that is simultaneously for both of you, and neither of you. Stick with the classics, like flowers.

Nobody ever thinks they're having enough sex: Elisabeth Shue cameos as a no-nonsense small-town bartender who attempts to show Kay that her problem is relatively universal. But, in the case of Kay and Arnold, whose dry spell is pushing half a decade, Kay might have a legitimate gripe.

Steve Carell doesn't have to be funny: If you're waiting to see Steve Carell crack a joke, or even a smile, as renowned couples specialist Dr. Feld, prepare to still be waiting after you leave the theater. That's because the A-list comedian is too busy showcasing his serious side in Hope Springs, and it's one he pulls off surprisingly well.

Tommy Lee Jones has an endless capacity for acting grouchy: No surprises here; grouchiness comes as easily to Jones as getting nominated for Oscars comes to Meryl. And whether he's complaining about the cost of counseling or the cost of a tuna melt, Jones is once again in peak form as the ill-tempered Arnold, leading his co-star Streep to dub him "50 Shades of Grumpy." For all his terse answers and general haranguing, Jones seems to still be stuck in Men in Black mode -- only in this case, Meryl's the one named Kay.

Meryl Streep can do anything: The Greatest Living Actress makes a seamless transition from working in London's House of Commons to Omaha's Coldwater Creek. And whether she's playing Margaret Thatcher or a Nebraskan housewife, Streep is gunning for an Oscar nomination every time out. Expect her to land her record 18th thanks to Hope Springs, as she effortlessly inhabits yet another wildly different character (and makes an otherwise cringe-worthy grocery shopping trip improbably work).

It's important to set the mood: Frankel is big on hammering home the visual metaphors, so Kay and Arnold don't just sleep in separate beds, I Love Lucy-style, they bunk down in completely separate rooms. All of which makes the long-married couple more like roommates than husband and wife. Later on, their figurative distance is helpfully charted by how close the two sit together on Dr. Feld's couch. At one point, Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" helpfully plays. The acting may be subtle, but Frankel's directing isn't.

Dr. Feld is keeping the entire town of Hope Springs in business: Whether he's driving traffic to the local diner, bookstore or, in dire cases, the local bar, it seems like Dr. Feld's rotating cast of desperate couples is helping keep the sleepy Maine town afloat. The only people who might not be as happy about the good doctor's methods are the local theater owners and their patrons who just want to watch their "Foreign Film Fest" in peace. Either way, Arnold seems genuinely onto something with his kickbacks theory.

Arnold knows what he likes: Arnold isn't afraid to say what we wants, at least when it comes to cold cuts (fantasies and relationship issues are somewhat of a different matter). But Arnold's defense of his love of ranch chips is the most fired-up I've heard Tommy Lee Jones get about anything in the last five years. The man has a snacking preference, OK?

It's never too late to fix things: Even when it seems like things are irrevocably broken, there's always a happy ending waiting around the corner. No matter how out of nowhere or neatly-wrapped it feels. Because despite its refreshingly frank attitude toward the reality of long-term relationships, this is still a Hollywood movie -- and Frankel's learned his lesson after Marley & Me.

There's hope for Hope Springs: As The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel showed before it, there's room for mature-leaning counterprogramming at the summer box office. And with the trio of Streep, Jones and Carell, Hope Springs has enough star power and genuine thoughtfulness to please audiences looking for a break from their usual routine.