In the Bedroom 

Hope Springs overcomes near-fatal flaws to become a surprisingly serious sex comedy.

Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep in Hope Springs

Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep in Hope Springs

In form, Hope Springs fits into the venerable film tradition of "comedies of remarriage" — films about married, or once-married, couples overcoming problems to rediscover each other. (Gold-standard examples: The Awful Truth, Adam's Rib.) But in this particular renewal of vows, the reception DJ almost ruins the party. I don't think I've ever seen — or, I guess, heard — a movie where the use of music was so distracting.

For much of the film, pop songs — mostly bland, mediocre pop songs, but even the good ones fall flat — are lathered over scenes and transitions between scenes with absolutely no sense of how sound and image can work together. The songs seem chosen solely for how literally they can cue audiences to react to scenes in which no functioning viewer needs so much help.

The lone exception to this song usage is very instructive. It's Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," and it doesn't work because it's Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" — though, sure, that helps. It works because it's the only time in the movie when a music choice is diegetic — meaning that it emanates from within the film. This isn't the director telling the audience how to feel. It's one of the characters choosing music to convey how he or she feels.

The soundtrack here is so bad that I almost thought the theater had made a technical mistake, piping in a radio station over the auditorium speakers.

Which is too bad, because there's also an awful lot of good here, and much of it is surprising.

Hope Springs stars Tommy Lee Jones, 65, and Meryl Streep, 63, as Arnold and Kay, a Nebraska couple married 31 years and settled into an ossified routine. Each morning, Kay makes Arnold the same breakfast before he trudges off to his accounting firm and she to her retail job. Each night, Kay makes dinner and Arnold falls asleep on his leather recliner while watching the Gold Channel or an old movie, until she wakes him up and they amble upstairs and into separate bedrooms. The closest thing to physical intimacy they seem to share is the gruff peck Arnold absentmindedly plants on Kay's cheek each morning on his way out the door.

Kay is unhappy, and when her tentative, embarrassed seduction attempt goes nowhere, she ignores a co-worker's insistence that "marriages don't change" and consults the self-help aisle, where she finds a promising title written by Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell).

Dr. Feld offers week-long intensive couples counseling at his Maine office and Kay pays for reservations and plane tickets herself, cajoling, begging, and shaming an extremely reluctant Arnold into going along.

The bulk of the film consists of Kay and Arnold's meetings with Dr. Feld — where the DJ, thankfully, is on mute — and their between-session attempts to follow his rejuvenation instructions.

What ensues might be uncomfortable for some viewers — those who squirm or roll their eyes at the notion of post-middle-age sex or maybe just by the realistic discussion of sex.

Gradually, the sessions with Dr. Feld — portrayed by Carell as kind, smart, and insistent — start to answer questions viewers will already have: Why do Kay and Arnold sleep in separate bedrooms? How long has it been since they've had sex? Did their love life dry up, or was it ever good to begin with?

The couple's attempts to re-ignite their sex lives are candid and at-times comical but are generally not played for yuks. This movie, to its great credit, sees humor in sex, not humor in "old people" sex. It takes complicated, creaky, post-middle-aged coupling seriously — without taking it too seriously. To be as frank as the film: Hope Springs doesn't think the idea of sixtysomethings engaging in oral sex outrageous. It just thinks it's normal, human stuff.

The film is directed by David Frankel, who worked with Streep on the hit The Devil Wears Prada and whose middle-of-the-road style is probably responsible for most of the film's faults. But the script, written by television veteran Vanessa Taylor, is sharp and sensitive. And the performances from Jones and Streep get the best out of the material.

Hope Springs doesn't rely on Jones' trademark irascibility here, letting him — or maybe inspiring him — to dig deeper than the easy surface caricature. And Streep has already proven she can convey middle-aged sensuality. While there's a mix of pained awkwardness and gentle humor here, there are some moments of real heat, where a brief glimpse of a hand traveling up a too-long-untouched thigh is more erotic than more athletic or skin-baring displays in most other films.

Hope Springs is pitched as retiree rom-com, a film that could tap into the under served demographic that has made The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a surprise hit this year. But, despite its near-crippling formal flaws, it would be too bad if that's the only audience it finds. This warm, good-humored story of decent people with difficult but not insurmountable problems will have a lot to say to people who can identify with where Kay and Arnold are in life. But it could also have plenty to say to those that aren't there yet.

Hope Springs
Now playing, multiple locations.

Hope Springs
Rated PG-13 · 121 min. · 2012
Official Site: www.hopesprings-movie.com
Director: David Frankel
Writer: Vanessa Taylor
Producer: Todd Black and Guymon Casady
Cast: Steve Carell, Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Fernando Lara

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