It's kind of like sex. The new Meryl Streep-Tommy Lee Jones movie, Hope Springs, can be a little messy and uneven. You need to take your time with it, be patient and open. But it is ultimately satisfying.
Certainly watching the greatest actor of our generation, or for that matter of all time, makes the experience rewarding. So effortless is her work, so ingratiating and fully-fleshed out is her characterization, that her co-star Tommy Lee Jones suffers a bit by way of comparison.
The last time these two appeared together in a film, the sadly ending documentary Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, she was the ingenue, the nervous Vassar girl that everyone worried was too shy to be successful. He was the Harvard roommate to the future vice president and a football star instrumental in the most monumental undeserved upset in the history of college football. But that was before an acting career which has seen her with more Academy Awards and nominations than any other actor in history. And before her overshadowing performance in Hope Springs.
Its not just that Jones character in this film is the arch-typical remote to clueless husband. Much to his credit, Jones wrestles the character to the mat and wins. But at first he seems to be asked to portray a caricature instead of a person. Gruff, Omaha, asleep in front of television's golf channel, the same one fried egg and bacon every morning without a word to his wife. Of course its an intimacy-free relationship -- no communication, no sex, no bonding. Parallel lives barely intersecting.
Jones seems to repress it, while Streep percolates resentment, resilience and reaction. Even after 31 years of this marriage, Streep sees more in Jones than we do. So she gambles all, insisting that they travel from their Mid-West home for a one week session with a noted marriage-saving therapist in Maine. Thankfully, Steve Carrell as the therapist abandons his usual cloying, self-satisfied, too cute annoyances. Perhaps he really is better suited for being a therapist than a thespian as he backs off, providing just enough framework for these two consummate professionals to discover their characters and create a movie.
In his defense, Tommy Lee Jones is a vision of yesterday's man -- the family's single breadwinner buffeted by constant worries, justified or not, about his economic circumstances. His concerns stem less from his apparent class position than his unwillingness to expend emotional capital -- some kind of accountant, seemingly unable to afford much more than cold embraces and meals of coldcuts at the EconoLodge, his accommodations of choice on the couple's trip to their marriage saving in Maine.
Cheap? Perhaps. Where Jones sees cost, Streep sees investment. Jones is less sympathetic, a bit extreme compared to Streep's more reasonable every woman. Her soft, easy curves are certainly more attractive than his craggy obstinacy.
But the imbalance serves a purpose. His character makes it safer to view, less threatening to us in the audience. We can never be that guy. Sure we may watch a bit too much TV, miss cues, hide out in work too much. But we will always be better than Jones. And that allows us to take forward at least small lessons from the movie.
The only real dramatic tension is whether Streep and Jones can hold their relationship together. Will he change even the minimal amount that she needs in order for her to stay with him? Will he notice if she leaves him?
It may be a more restrained, less ambitious work than saving the world from aliens and terrorists. But it just may help save the summer from mindless bombast and supercilious sequels. And isn't it vastly better having Meryl instructing us on how to save our relationships than playing the unwitting apologist for Margaret Thatcher.