"HOPE SPRINGS" stars Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as Kay and Arnold, a wife and husband entering couples therapy after 30 years of marriage.
Except it's not really couples therapy. It's full-on sex therapy. At the first session, the fellow in charge of their treatment (Steve Carell) bypasses such topics as work, finance and children and launches immediately into how much, how often and what kind.
The answers are not much, not lately and none of your business — at least in the decided opinion of Arnold. The movie's money shot, to which it returns a dozen times, is Jones, with his gruff and impassive face looking like that of the most unamused and uncomfortable fellow in the world.
Jones has become cinema's last repository of masculine stoicism, and "Hope Springs" milks his persona for all its worth: He says little, but his contempt clearly registers in the granite ridges of his motionless face.
The sex therapist's office after three decades of marriage? This truly is no country for old men.
It gets worse for Arnold, who must endure a week of the therapist's invasions and assignments. Each excruciating session is followed by homework: exercises in touching, foreplay and the full monty.
All of this may strike you as funny or as something clinical and more horrifying, in its own way, than a "Saw" sequel. If you want to see Meryl Streep practice something on a banana and then attempt to perfect it on Jones, well, this is your movie.
Certainly folks in their golden years deserve to have their own sex comedy, and there is evidence the market is underserved: "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" did nice business early this year mixing romance and retirement.
"Hope Springs" replaces that movie's ensemble energy with the star power of Jones and Streep, and although you couldn't find two better actors, they seem to have more movie-star chemistry than chemistry as a couple.
Even for a couple estranged in their own house, they don't show the residue of shared lives, of the raised children, etc. Kay's unhappiness seems to strike Arnold as a bolt from the blue. And if their estrangement seems to spring from nowhere, so does the resolution to their troubles.
Streep is working here with director David Frankel, her collaborator on "The Devil Wears Prada," the movie that brought out the scene-stealer in cinema's greatest technician. Streep is a big bankable star now, and there are consequences to that. Once established, it can be very hard to stuff it all back into a package the size of Edith Bunker, as she attempts to do here.
She goes small, with voice mannerisms to suggest Kay as the meek helpmate to a gruff and dominant male, but I missed the pieces of information that would explain why, now, she was suddenly asserting herself and issuing ultimatums. Or walking into a random bar and frankly disgorging details of her marriage bed with the bartender (Elizabeth Shue).
Most disconcerting: When an amorous moment arrives, so does the baggage of last year's Oscar, and she suddenly looks like Margaret Thatcher. It's the world's biggest buzzkill.
REVIEW | s 1/2
Directed by David Frankel. With Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell. Distributed by Sony Pictures.
Parents' guide: PG-13 (adult themes, sex talk)
Running time: 100 minutes.