One can only imagine how witty, wise and moving Hope Springs might have been in the hands of Mike Nichols, originally tapped to direct (Carnal Knowledge 30 years later?). Advertised as a romantic dramedy about middle-aged marriage gone stale, Hope dutifully delivers gentle laughs and occasional sexual farce. And probably that’s all director David Frankel—who mined such easy comedy out of cosmeticized surfaces in The Devil Wears Prada—was aiming for.
He didn’t count on Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. Did the gutsy co-stars of Hope Springs simply hijack Frankel’s safe little comedy of marital errors? Or did they force the fellow to rise to their level? Either way, this team’s tough, unglamorized performances power Hope way beyond the ho-hum territory of a slightly edgier It’s Complicated. Shout-out to Oscar: As an aging couple looking for love among the ruins, Streep and Jones are so good they could be auditioning for a softer, American version of Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman’s classic dissection of marital life and strife.
But the stars can’t act away the movie’s tonal lurches and character U-turns. Segueing from soap opera to shockingly raw moments of emotional realism, from sexual slapstick to In Treatment–style therapeutic drama, Hope edges into deep waters, painful issues like growing old and lonely, the passing of physical beauty and youthful faith. But ultimately Frankel and the script chicken out, ditching challenging cargo in favor of a dash for the picture-pretty port of Feel Good.