- - Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Every now and then, Hollywood remembers that just because people get old, doesn’t mean they stop looking for romance at the movies. “Hope Springs” is tailor-made for that subset of the aging boomer demographic who might want a cinematic experience that doesn’t involve dippy, hard-bodied young stars cavorting brainlessly in a hot tub of easy sexuality.

This easy marketing dichotomy only works because filmmakers may have bent over backward a bit to depict a buttoned-down boomer couple that didn’t storm the barricades during the sexual revolution. Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) are a quiet, superficially boring Omaha couple. He’s an accountant who relaxes by watching golf on television, and she works in a retail store, nursing her secret dream of a more fulfilling marriage.

Kay’s research leads her to book a week-long session at a far-flung marriage counseling clinic in Maine, run by Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carrell), who promises to awaken dormant intimacies and enhance their connection to each other.

Most of the comedy comes from Kay and Arnold shamefacedly bumbling through Dr. Feld’s exercises, most of which involve them trying to reconnect physically. As a comedy team, Mr. Jones and Miss Streep are both hilariously restrained and able to communicate with the tiniest of gestures. While Mr. Jones is mostly funny because he is playing against type, Mrs. Streep tries to inhabit the timid and retiring Kay, and shrinks a bit as a result. There’s not really much to either of their characters on the page, except for the fact they are a couple of empty-nesters who have settled into a dull routine.

This isn’t necessarily bad. Instead of leaning on the stars to carry the movie, screenwriter Vanessa Taylor and director David Frankel raise the stakes in the story. Here and there we get failure, when the conventions of romantic comedy would seem to demand success. The best thing about “Hope Springs,” and what will make it appeal to older audiences, is that it depicts marriage as full of obstacles, and personal change as a formidable challenge.

Mr. Carrell turns in some of the best work of his acting career, recalling his low key performance in “Little Miss Sunshine.” Mr. Carrell plays Dr. Feld with deceptive simplicity, as a committed and unflappable therapist. In his leading roles, Mr. Carrell typically plays improbable, broadly drawn comic characters who hide behind masks of impetuosity and outright stupidity. While the character of Dr. Feld is pretty much static throughout the course of the movie, he guides Kay and Arnold over some treacherous ground with a quiet but vivid intelligence.

While “Hope Springs” is more tender than riotously funny, it delivers sufficient laughs to earn its keep as a comedy, and certainly more than enough romance to serve as a reliable date-night choice for the over-50 set.

★★★

TITLE: “Hope Springs”

CREDITS: Directed by David Frankel; written by Vanessa Taylor

RATING: PG-13 for suggestive but, mercifully, not explicit sexual content

RUNNING TIME: 100 Minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS