Hope Springs, a serious American adult drama about the complications of intimacy in a long-term marriage, wraps itself in the safety of a surface-y American comedy about an aging married couple fumbling with sex the lack of it. The movie provides a master lesson in great American character acting, but viewers are also invited to just kick back and enjoy the fun of watching famous, aging movie stars pretend to have difficulties in the sack. Spectacularly well matched and attuned to each other, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones offer two of the finest performances of the year. (Yes, Streep, again. And Jones is a revelation.) But you'd never know it from the silly trailer, with its nudge-nudge clips and vaudeville-size hints of a ''threesome.''
Well, hey, come for the possibility of a naughty group grope and a sex comedy artificially sweetened by a gummy, chirpy soundtrack of directional mood music and easy-listening songs. But stay for the silences in the exquisitely painful, realistic therapy sessions. Ignore the mass-market movie gestures thrown in by down-the-middle director David Frankel (who previously worked with Streep in The Devil Wears Prada), and Hope Springs just may start looking uncannily like an Ingmar Bergman movie.
Streep and Jones play Kay and Arnold Soames of Omaha, sixtysomethings held together by little more than inertia in a marriage of 31 years that went sexless long ago. The children are grown. The routines are ruts. Each morning Kay cooks Arnold breakfast before he trudges off to the accounting firm where he's a partner. (Before his retirement, Jack Nicholson's Walter from About Schmidt might as well have worked down the street.) Each night Arnold falls asleep in front of the big flat-screen in the den to the drone of golf tips. Then wife wakes husband so the two can traipse upstairs to their separate bedrooms. Kay and Arnold aren't angry with each other, or unkind: They're just...average middle-class American zombies in a nice split-level house. (The production design, by Hannah and Her Sisters' masterful Stuart Wurtzel, is brilliant, as are the costumes by Ann Roth, both models of authenticity free of condescension or irony.)
The Soameses could easily run out the clock for the next 20 years, inured to feeling. But in an outstanding feature-screenplay debut, TV-seasoned writer Vanessa Taylor (Alias, Game of Thrones) has created distinctive characters, two halves of a particular couple worthy of empathy and our moviegoing time. The tentative steps with which Kay gathers the strength to face her dissatisfaction and her loneliness feel true, not forced. (Besides, Streep lives for this stuff.) Hungering for a revitalized marriage, she invites/asks/urges her husband to join her for an expensive week of intensive couples counseling. In Maine, no less so far away. The lurching steps with which Arnold reluctantly acquiesces to his wife's request are, in Jones' care, a beautiful ballet of accommodation.
Kay and Arnold arrive at the office of renowned therapist Dr. Bernard Feld, and something amazing happens: The doctor, played by Steve Carell with radiant kindness and intelligence, works with the Soameses with a seriousness of purpose that ought to have audiences squirming with uncomfortable self-recognition; and Hope Springs expands, quietly, into a resonant psychological and sexual study of sometimes unbearable intimacy, as a man and a woman who have lived together for more than three decades reintroduce themselves to each other. For full psychological effect, imagine the scenes with no music behind them.
There are, not to worry, funny moments, charming moments, sweet fumblings. There are comic glitches in the erotic machinery to lighten the mood and bind the audience up in the ''comedy'' of relighting the old mojo even when wrinkles have come to stay. Kay, as it happens, works part-time in a branch of Coldwater Creek, the real, mall-friendly women's-apparel chain where nice ladies can buy figure-forgiving overshirts in soft colors, along with cute dangly earrings for pizzazz. Dressed à la Coldwater Creek, with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as supermodels, Hope Springs dares viewers to look closely at the remarkable sight of naked adult intimacy and its discontents. B+