Men in Black Moods

Tommy Lee Jones is famous for playing cantankerous characters. In his new romantic comedy, he finally lightens up. A bit.
Men in Black Moods
Photograph by Barry Wetcher

Even if you know nothing of Tommy Lee Jones’s offscreen reputation—that he’s cantankerous and curmudgeonly and suffers no fools and will readily tell interviewers that their questions are stupid—you’d probably be able to figure things out just by looking at his face. The lines in the San Saba–born actor’s forehead and jowls have deepened into creases and folds; there are puffy gray pouches beneath his eyes. His skin, leathered from decades beneath the Texas sun, has begun to sag—his entire countenance now sinks into a nonnegotiable frown. Always an actor whose performances are concentrated from the neck up—think of his twitchy Clay Shaw in Oliver Stone’s JFK or the pitiless stare with which he considers Harrison Ford in The Fugitive—Jones has used that face to almost epically baleful effect in recent years. In 2007, especially, he gave a pair of career-crowning performances: as a West Texas sheriff trying to unravel a drug deal gone awry in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men and as a father investigating the wartime disappearance of his son in Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah. He was also moving as a recession-era corporate executive in The Company Men, a terrific movie almost no one saw (see “Greed Isn’t Good”). In these pictures, he played men grieving over an American ideal gone rotten, astonished by how swiftly the bottom had dropped out of their universe. What could such fellows possibly have to be happy about? Two high-profile upcoming roles, as radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (due out in December) and as General Douglas MacArthur in Peter Webber’s World War II–era drama Emperor (which will arrive next year), sound as if they will be similarly solemn fare. 

So it’s been a considerable treat in an otherwise dreary moviegoing summer to see Jones, if not exactly lightening up, at least reminding us of how many extraordinary variations he can spin on being dour. He turned up a few months ago in Men in Black 3, Barry Sonnenfeld’s continuation of the federal-agents-fighting-space-aliens franchise, in fine, comically put-upon form as Agent K. (The twist of this movie is that Will Smith’s Agent J travels back in time and meets a younger version of Agent K, played by Josh Brolin, whose performance is basically an extended, deliciously oddball Tommy Lee Jones impersonation—clearly Brolin was making careful study when the two men appeared together in No Country and Valley of Elah.) This month Jones co-stars in David Frankel’s comedy-drama Hope Springs, playing a middle-aged accountant in a sexless marriage whose wife, Kay (Meryl Streep), drags him to couples therapy. The material threatens to drift into farcical territory—at one point, Kay buys a bunch of bananas in order to practice her sexual technique—but the actors keep pulling it back in the other direction, offering up a genuinely troubling portrait of a marriage that has carried on long past its seeming expiration date. What’s most surprising is that, in addition to being impatient and exasperated and all those other things we expect Jones to be, the actor tempers his orneriness with a piercing vulnerability and even sweetness. Not since 1994’s Blue Sky, opposite Jessica Lange, has he proved so compelling a romantic leading man. 

As Hope Springs opens, Kay is primping in her bathroom, in the hopes of a bit of late-night romance with Arnold, her husband of 31 years. We soon learn that they sleep in separate bedrooms and in fact haven’t had sex in nearly 5 years. Right from the beginning, there’s an arresting frankness in both actors’ performances, particularly Jones’s; when Kay propositions Arnold, his whole body tenses up, like a nervous teenager who doesn’t know if he’s ready to lose his virginity. As the story unfolds, Arnold begrudgingly follows Kay to a tiny town in Maine, where she has arranged for a week of couples therapy with a marriage counselor, Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell). Feld’s approach revolves around a series of “exercises”—comic to the audience, but deadly serious for a couple that no longer understands intimacy—designed to force them to emotionally reconnect. 

American movies rarely address the erotic lives of fifty-something and sixty-something characters, but Hope Springs is determined to correct this cultural shortsightedness, and the actors are fearless in that effort. During one therapy session, Dr. Feld asks Kay and Arnold to talk about their sexual fantasies. Kay flushes with puzzlement, and then outright shame, when Dr. Feld expresses surprise that most of her fantasies revolve around her husband. For

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