In ‘Mamma Mia!’ Meryl Streep played Donna, a free spirit who’d cut loose and hit the hippy trail in the 1960s. Her character in ‘Hope Springs’, Kay, could be the sister she left behind – the good girl who married a meat-and-potatoes man, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), and raised a family. Now, after 31 years, Arnold barely looks at her. In desperation, she books them on a week-long sex ’n’ marriage counselling holiday with Dr Feld (Steve Carell, playing it straight). Needless to say, Arnold has a face like thunder at the news.
Director David Frankel’s previous films include ‘Marley & Me’ and ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. This has the same likeable-but-none-too-deep feel. And there are some yuckily candid scenes (one involving Streep, a banana and a suggestion from the book ‘Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man’ – work it out). But the acting is bang-on, so to speak. It’s what rescues ‘Hope Springs’ from being another sticky relationship comedy-with-an-earnest-edge. Tommy Lee Jones is wonderful as grumpy Arnold – eyes squeezed tight like he wants to keep the world out. ‘What about maturbation?’ asks Dr Feld. Jones flashes him a look like he’s going to rip off his head off.
And Streep is on a roll with these life-affirming roles (after ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘It’s Complicated’). There’s a case to be made that she’s playing fast and loose with her finest-actress-of-her-generation reputation. I disagree. Kay is a character who could easily be patronised. Gentle to the point of mousy, when a therapy session turns to sex, she buttons up her cardigan. But Streep is warm, and she’s got the timing of a stand-up. Her performance demands you bat for her woman.