Meryl Streep has been excavating the sexual life of older women in films such as Mamma Mia! and It's Complicated, reminding us that while baby boomers are now eligible for a bus pass, every now and then they still have the urge to take the car out for a spin.
The incandescent 63-year-old double Oscar-winner once again pokes her head under the bonnet of a long-term marriage in Hope Springs, a comedy-tinged drama about a couple who go into therapy in an effort to kickstart their stalled relationship.
But this time Streep is so startlingly de-glammed and the film so painfully realistic — she has a pancake-flat hairstyle and a pair of two-for-the-price-of-one glasses and is lumbered with a grouchy, penny-pinching husband who no longer touches her — that older audiences will wince in embarrassed recognition.
While first-time writer Vanessa Taylor and director David Frankel have peppered Hope Springs with plenty of good geezer-in-lust jokes, it is an unusually frank and unsentimental mainstream US movie playing in the drama-free zone that is the modern multiplex.
Indeed, Hope Springs should be slapped with an R-rating to prevent teens from unwittingly wandering in and being shocked at Streep and her co-star Tommy Lee Jones talking about oral sex and threesomes and, heaven help us, actually going at it like a pair of horny high-schoolers.
At times you feel Frankel straining to add lightness and levity to the heartbreaking situation of a three-decade-old marriage dwindled to mere politeness and pleasantries, encapsulated most tellingly in the same serve of bacon and eggs that Streep's Kay makes for Jones' Arnold every morning.
And the film could certainly do without the heavy-handed use of era-specific pop songs — I Don't Want to Be Your Mother; Everybody Plays the Fool; Let’s Stay Together and It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over — that are supposed to evoke what has been lost as well as cue the audience to the various narrative ups and downs.
But even when Hope Springs feels like an extended episode of Dr Phil (with a surprisingly straight Steve Carell in the role of the shrink) these two great actors — Streep and Jones — expertly navigate the treacherous waters of a therapy-based movie, bringing so much depth and richness to their characters you forget the marriage-counselling device.
When the film opens, Kay and Arnold's marriage has ossified into a dull routine. The children have grown and left home, their conversations are functional and without joy or surprise and they haven’t slept in the same bed for years (he suffers from sleep apnoea but it is just an excuse for the lack of intimacy).
An increasingly desperate and lonely Kay manages with great difficulty to get her perpetually grumpy, uncommunicative husband to fly with her to the coastal village of Great Hope Springs in Maine for a week of sessions with a famed marriage therapist named Dr Feld (Carell).
At first Arnold reacts like a wounded bull to the relentless probing and encouraging of Dr Feld. But Kay's distress causes Arnold to gradually peel off the emotional armour, revealing feelings that he’d long ago buried to cope with the demands and responsibilities of marriage and raising children.
Streep shrugs off her big-city trappings to become a frumpy, fragile, sexually shy Mid Western hausfrau but one as deserving of love as any of her more glamorous previous characters.
However, the revelation is Jones. Better known for his laconic hard-arses in blockbusters such as The Fugitive and Men In Black, he does all the hard lifting here, taking Arnold from an emotionally shrivelled wage slave who falls asleep watching the golfing channel to a man who reconnects with his repressed sexuality and the woman he clearly still loves.
I would have preferred to see Streep and Jones hammer out their problems without a therapist, even though Dr Feld is just the kind of compassionate, jargon-free shrink you'd wish for if you were in the same situation.But even if the examination of the marriage is Oprah-lite and the sex jokes gentle rather than stinging or hilarious, it's such a relief to have another kind of dark knight rising at the multiplexes.
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