It’s probably the easiest paycheck director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) ever earned. Not only did he direct the exquisite Hope Springs as if it was a minimally-staged Off-Broadway play, he got to look on as two of the world’s most respected actors put together a masterclass in understatement and nuance.

Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) and Kay (Meryl Streep) are celebrating their 31st anniversary– though there’s no real celebration to be found. Their gift to each other is the ‘expanded’ cable package, they sleep in different rooms, and they honestly can’t remember the last time they had sex.

Each and every day is a loveless, boring routine, and, frankly, Kay’s over it, so she cashes in her CD and heads halfway across the country to the office of marriage counselor Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell)… with Arnold reluctantly in tow.

Once there, Feld sits them both down for a series of probing sessions, trying to get to the root of their problems. Arnold, who would rather be getting his toenails forcibly extracted, thinks the entire thing is hooey, and Kay’s frustration starts to rise, too, seeing the sessions are getting nowhere fast.

Eventually, though, the ice begins to melt, and Streep and Jones start to share a chemistry that’s as true and believable as anything that’s been on screen in a while. The two actors (along with Carell, who drops his comic veneer for a rare straight-man performance) are simply brilliant. Not far into Hope Springs you’ll find yourself captivated, completely forgetting you’re watching a movie and instead thinking you’ve been invited to sit in the corner of Feld’s office.

The first feature film screenplay by Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones) feels remarkably true and honest. Not a single piece of dialogue feels forced or out of place, and there are equal measures of humor and heartbreak to keep the pace moving briskly (despite the fact that Hope Springs, for the most part, is just two people talking to a therapist in an office).

When the action does move outside those four walls, things get even more interesting– whether its a naughty, fumbling (and hilarious) visit to a local movie theater or a sweet and tender dinner for two in the town’s swanky restaurant.

If there’s one complaint it’s that the ending wraps things up a little too abruptly, particularly given the embarrassing and intimate struggles Kay and Arnold went through until that point. But even that can be largely overlooked.

It’s not often that grown-ups get an actual movie to see at the theater. It’s even more rare when it turns out to be as charming and endearing as Hope Springs.

4/5 stars