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 his part, Arnold squirms and stutters and smiles an almost unbearably melancholy smile when he admits that he wouldn’t mind having a threesome with his wife and their middle-aged neighbor Carol. 

The two actors are perfectly matched in age (in real life, Streep is 63 and Jones turns 66 next month) and temperament (her generous ebullience contrasts beautifully with his slump-shouldered taciturnity), and it’s a bit of a crime that they’ve never been paired before. (They both appeared in 2006’s A Prairie Home Companion but shared no major scenes.) Here they poignantly illustrate how, in long-term relationships, familiarity and awkwardness can become interchangeable. Kay and Arnold are acutely conscious that their rut might actually be the only thing holding them together—and afraid of what might happen if they’re forced out of it. 

Hope Springs, it should be noted, ultimately gets caught in a frustrating middle zone: it doesn’t dig as deep as the great Hollywood divorce epics, like Kramer vs. Kramer or Shoot the Moon, but it also doesn’t have the sprightly, screwball energy of the classic comedies of remarriage, like The Awful Truth or My Favorite Wife. Visually speaking, the movie feels claustrophobic and underpopulated, with most of the action unfolding in hotel rooms, restaurants, or the therapist’s office. But it deserves to be seen and celebrated, if only for the heart-piercing scene where Arnold, in a last-ditch effort to salvage matters, nervously halts Kay’s sexual advances in order to first play some mood-setting music on his iPod (Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” natch). 

We’ve witnessed Streep play this sort of bruised-yet-soulfully-earnest character before, in Heartburn, Postcards From the Edge, and even The Bridges of Madison County, and nothing can be held against her for once again performing it peerlessly. But Hope Springs is entirely new terrain for Jones, who combines hard and soft, regret and hope, sexual anxiety and moonbeam tenderness, and whose face—by the end—looks more relaxed than it has in years. Proof that sometimes, just when you think you have a great actor all figured out, he’ll turn around and do something even better. 

Greed Isn’t Good: Tommy Lee Jones, repentant corporate shark

In a just world, The Company Men—a drama about three longtime employees (Jones, Ben Affleck, and Chris Cooper) of a once prosperous, now struggling corporation—would have been among the more lauded titles of recent years. Written and directed by John Wells (an executive producer of ER and Shameless), the film combines the acid social satire of vintage Billy Wilder with an insightful portrait of how American identities are often entirely bound up in our jobs. Released in the midst of the Great Recession, it no doubt touched too raw a nerve for most viewers. Catch up with it on DVD, where you can marvel over the excellent ensemble, especially Jones. His performance as an up-from-his-bootstraps man who hates that he’s become a corporate shark—and who hates it even more when he ends up joining the ranks of the downsized—is the film’s most unexpectedly moving aspect.