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Longtime wed, separate beds, a marital impasse

Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones are a couple at odds, in therapy.

Kay and Arnold have been wed 31 years. They sleep in separate bedrooms and live parallel lives. When she reaches across the canyon of the breakfast table, he retreats further into his armored shell. When he makes a joke, she hears it as a personal insult. She is miserable. He is oblivious. Can this marriage be saved?

In Hope Springs, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) are a jammed lock and key, stuck together but not operating in tandem. After all these years, oxidation and calcification have gummed up the works.

Kay thinks they need maintenance; Arnold thinks they can make do.

Their arrangement is like an uneasy truce. Is it a prelude to war or peace?

Thus far in 2012, self-help books such as Think Like a Man and What to Expect When You're Expecting have inspired films, dispensing strategies to the marriage-minded and baby-hopeful. Hope Springs, based on Vanessa Taylor's original script, bypasses the bookstore to purvey straight-to-screen self-help. It provides tools for intimacy aimed at couples on the farther end of the relationship spectrum.

Hope Springs purveys snapshots of a couple that bring literal meaning to the word stalemate. Rather than plunge into the murky marital waters of ambivalence and power struggle, the film bobs on the surface. No one would ever mistake David Frankel's dramedy of sexual healing for Ingmar Bergman's psychologically astute Scenes From a Marriage.

First, the unhappy Kay buys a self-help book by marriage counselor Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell). Then she buys airplane tickets to the Maine hamlet where the doctor practices. (Hope Springs is the name of the town.) She believes that her marriage can be fixed. Arnold believes it's not broken. As ads for the film have aired regularly during Olympics television broadcasts it's not giving away much to say that Arnold grudgingly gets on board the plane, if not Kay's fix-it mission.

For Frankel, director of Marley & Me and The Devil Wears Prada, the question isn't can this marriage be saved, but how? The result is a therapeutic movie about a chatty wife and a taciturn husband who have lost connection and try to reconnect by following Dr. Feld's intimacy assignments. Feld likens his marital tune-ups to the doctors who repair a deviated septum: Got to break the nose in order to fix it.

As the wife whose feelings are right on the surface and the husband whose are in a lockbox, Streep and Jones earned my empathy without asking for it. There are few actors whose body English is as eloquent.

And as a fly on the wall for their characters' couples therapy and homework, I simultaneously cringed, cried, and cracked up.

Frankel is a broad-stroke rather than a fine-grain filmmaker, and he leaves little to the imagination. He doesn't have a light touch so much as a comic grip, wringing equal parts humor and pain from Kay's and Arnold's awkwardness. For long stretches of the movie I did as much emotional work as they did. I cannot tell whether this is a function of actorly skill or of a screenplay that told me how to feel rather than giving me the space and time to draw my own conclusions.

Let me put my ambivalence this way: I was happy to see Hope Springs; even happier when it was over.