HOPE SPRINGS– that movies are still being made (if I may paraphrase our 16th president) of the grownups, for the grownups, and by the grownups… and that they have not perished from the earth.  Though far from perfect, HOPE SPRINGS is a funny, painful, tender, and smart take on a long-term marriage gone dry, and charts a thoroughly engaging course out of that desert.

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones mesmerize as Kay and Arnold,  31 years married, their sex life expired. Every morning she diligently fries his bacon; every night he watches golf on TV. Then the real action happens– they retire to separate bedrooms which leaves Kay lonely, and quietly ready to explode. Instead, she signs them up for a week of couples’ therapy in a picture perfect little town called HOPE SPRINGS. Yeah. It’s a postcard picture perfect little white pickety fence town with a too obviously metaphorical movie title. But I couldn’t wait for them to get there.

Enter Steve Carell as the therapist Dr. Feld– and he plays it completely straight! I keep watching. Just when I expect him to crack a joke, or twist a line, he uses that deeply earnest, smiling, but very steady gaze of his to serenely ask some very probing questions of the nervous couple on opposite ends of the couch before him. And his answers deftly parry all of their defenses without anyone losing his or her dignity.

Here’s what’s amazing about this film. It takes its time. There are lots of long awkward silences. There are no easy answers. Things don’t progress in a straight line. Many of the TOUGH questions about sexual intimacy (last time they had sex? what position(s)? fantasies??) get asked, and the homework assignments required of them are explicitly– but not graphically acted out. This is tastefully, sometimes hilariously, often heart-breakingly portrayed. I was on the edge of my seat, shrieking, laughing, nervous, and holding my breath, to see what these two would do when confronted with the rawness of the intimacy they are attempting to re-establish.

Tommy Lee Jones did break my heart with his vulnerability. We know he can be tough– and he’s tough as nails here too. But oh my god– so amazingly sweet. Streep is equally extraordinary in conveying innocence and daring all at once. She’s no pushover, though she’s been quite deferential in the relationship and at this point, she’s ready to go for broke– in the way that a modest, and unassuming wife with a will of iron who still loves her husband would fight for herself and her marriage. Watching these two veterans play off each other was an acting tutorial on the big screen.

The film could be accused of being too generic, too safe, or having too much corny music on the soundtrack; but for all that, the performances were astonishing, and the movie aims straight for the heart of an adult relationship. I was relieved not to see anyone or anything blowing up, or these characters making fools of themselves for an easy laugh. (OK. Maybe we could have done without that one scene with the banana.) No, HOPE SRINGS let me breathe and enjoy the spectacle of two adults involved in the none-too glamorous but oh so crucial fight for the physical and emotional integrity of the relationship of their lives. Bravo.