It's tough to come up with new superlatives for Meryl Streep, but the 63-year-old actress delivers her most frankly sexual performance yet in "Hope Springs." As a frustrated Omaha housewife trying to rekindle her marriage, Streep gets down and dirty on a hotel-room floor, in a darkened movie theater and even alone in bed. Some of these shockers are surely on-screen firsts from a woman we last saw in "The Iron Lady," but Streep does it all with sublime humor, elegance and dignity.
Streep plays Kay Soames, first seen sauntering in a low-cut nightie toward her oblivious husband, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). After 31 years of marriage, it's Arnold, a workaholic accountant, who fakes the excuses: "I've had pork for lunch," he says, unconvincingly. Fed up, Kay drags him to Great Hope Springs, a chowdery getaway in Maine, where couples counselor Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell) bluntly advises the Soameses to get back on the horse.
David Frankel, who directed Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada," forgoes the usual wackiness and instead finds tender humor in the sexual illumination of two folks from the lights-off generation. Streep is hilarious in the smallest ways (studying a how-to manual with a banana in one hand, she absentmindedly takes a bite), but her lonely, ill-equipped Kay can be heartbreaking, too. Carell, earnest and joke-free, is quite effective as a therapist gently unwrapping the gauze from a wounded marriage.
"Hope Springs" feels limited by Vanessa Taylor's three-person script -- Elisabeth Shue, briefly glimpsed as a bartender, is nearly the only other character -- and by the dark figure of Arnold. Emotionally and sexually frigid, Arnold remains unknowable; it's to Jones' credit that we care at all. The movie's main selling point, of course, is Streep. More than 40 features into her career, she's as vibrant, funny and appealing as ever.
PLOT An unhappy wife drags her taciturn husband to marriage counseling.
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE At 63, Streep gets down and dirty in this likable sex comedy about the waxing and waning of marital passion.