Tag Archives: tommy lee jones

My Year With Meryl: The Homesman (2014)

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Throughout her long career, Meryl has bounced around in different genres, starred as the main character in some films and appeared in smaller parts in others, and given audiences something unique and surprising each time out. She has rarely, however, made an appearance in a movie that felt like anything other than a favor to the film’s director. There have been films that she appeared in mostly due to the director’s persistence—Wes Craven famously had to write her a heartfelt letter before she changed her mind and signed on to 1999’s Music of the Heart—and there have been films of questionable merit that she has showed up in—the Farrelly Brothers’ Stuck on You and an awful and stiff 1990 television monstrosity called The Earth Day Special, in which she played the character of Concerned Citizen. But not until Tommy Lee Jones’ gorgeous looking but dramatically inert 2014 western The Homesman has Meryl been given such a tiny, thankless role. Appearing in no more than five minutes at the end of the movie, she does what she can with an underwritten part that gives her almost nothing to do.

When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, The Homesman looked prime to be a major year-end awards contender. Jones had before directed two television movies and one theatrical feature film—the acclaimed The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, also a western—and in a career that included terrific performances in films like Coal Miner’s Daughter and In the Valley of Elah, as well as an Oscar for his supporting role in The Fugitive, Jones looked like he might have finally done what Kevin Costner did with Dances With Wolves: excelled as both actor and director in a handsomely made western. The film offers a fantastic leading female role in Mary Bee Cutty, a part which two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank plays brilliantly from the first scene on. The supporting cast is filled with impressive names, everyone from John Lithgow to Hailee Steinfeld, from James Spader to Tim Blake Nelson. Even Meryl’s daughter Grace Gummer shows up in a major role.

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Early reviews were positive, but while the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, who shot the similarly stunning Brokeback Mountain, is lush and gorgeous, The Homesman is a crushing bore, with little urgency in its sprawling narrative, and with only Swank in a solid performance, one that unfortunately is tempered with an unexpected (and unnecessary) plot twist. In 1850s Nebraska, Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), single and yearning for an adventure, elects to travel across the country to round up three young women who have gone crazy. Toward the beginning of her journey, she encounters an older man George Briggs (Jones) who has been left for dead. Begging to be helped, George convinces Mary to let him join her. The two fight cold winter weather, tired horses, and a scarcity of food, and along the way, Mary starts to wonder if George may be the one who will agree to marry her, when no man before ever has.

The Homesman begins strong, when it focuses on Mary’s uneventful life at home, but as soon as she sets out on her cross-country trip, the film slows to almost a halt, mainly because George never amounts to a credible or interesting character, and the three crazy women offer little more than occasional screams and tantrums. Despite the wide open terrain featured in many wide establishing shots, so much of The Homesman makes the viewer feel claustrophobic, particularly in that middle hour where little conflict is to be had and the quiet quest toward an indiscernible destination becomes the movie’s only focus. By the time that destination is reached, little feels learned and accomplished, and the movie’s final scene, which features unexpected dancing on a ferry, is particularly weird and unsatisfying.

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Jones’ Unforgiven this is not, but The Homesman is not all a missed opportunity. Jones and Swank have a nice chemistry together, and Swank is fantastic in her subtle performance, easily her best on screen since Million Dollar Baby. She creates a fully three dimensional character that the viewer fully understands from her first few scenes on—that is until she makes a decision later in the movie that feels wrong and manipulative; even if this big twist was featured in Glendon Swarthout’s novel, it could have been corrected in the screenplay. While some of the major actors appearing in small cameos are distracting—John Lithgow is a prime example—James Spader is effective as a wealthy wiseass named Aloysius Duffy who appears in a brief, enormously tense scene that offers one of the film’s few suspenseful moments. Tim Blake Nelson goes a little over-the-top in his cameo, but Hailee Steinfeld shares a nice moment with Jones at the end, and Jesse Plemons, from Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad, is so quietly affecting in his few scenes at the beginning that it’s a shame he didn’t get more screen-time.

Meryl plays Altha Carter, the woman who the three crazy women are ultimately turned over to in the film’s conclusion. She appears in three successive scenes that are so short that if someone goes to the bathroom right before she appears, he or she might not get back in time before her character disappears. It’s nice to see Meryl and Jones together again on-screen so soon after their delightful pairing in the comedy Hope Springs, and it’s especially unique to see Meryl share a scene with one of her daughters—Grace Gummer, who appeared in Larry Crowne and Frances Ha, and who also played Meryl’s baby in The House of the Spirits. However, Meryl here is given so little to do and say that almost nothing is discovered about her minor character, who ultimately could have been played by any actress over sixty. Altha obviously didn’t need to be the focus of the film, but she could have played a bigger role in the narrative in the film’s third act, rather than simply saying hello, thanks, and goodbye. The Homesman is a mediocre western with little to recommend about it, and anyone going to see it to catch a supporting turn by Meryl will unfortunately be sorely disappointed.

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My Year With Meryl: Hope Springs (2012)

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After winning her third Academy Award, Meryl could have taken a much deserved break, but not only did she start shooting August: Osage County soon after her big win, she had another movie due for release later that summer—the David Frankel comedy-drama Hope Springs. Unlike The Iron Lady, which was the kind of prestige picture made specifically to win awards, Hope Springs is a quiet, sometimes funny, often sad movie that works more as a rainy day kind of entertainment. Meryl does a terrific job in Hope Springs playing a vulnerable, unsatisfied housewife named Kay, but it’s actually Tommy Lee Jones, who plays her repressed husband Arnold, who transforms his typical tough guy persona to create an emotionally resonant character.

Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay was originally titled Great Hope Springs and was for some time on the Black List, the list of most loved unproduced screenplays circulating Hollywood. It was Meryl’s enthusiasm over the project that got it officially rolling, and she turned to her The Devil Wears Prada helmer Frankel to take the directing reigns. He says in the DVD audio commentary that when Meryl boards a movie—any movie—a director essentially has his pick of any actors he wants for the other roles. Would Carell have taken the role of the therapist Doctor Feld if not for the opportunity to perform with two acting legends? Probably not. Would Elizabeth Shue, who back in 1996 was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars along with Meryl, have taken a brief cameo as a no-name waitress? Meryl is so respected that she attracts many fantastic actors to her projects, and together Frankel and Meryl decided on Jones for the pivotal role of her husband, Arnold.

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It’s easy to see what attracted Meryl to Hope Springs. How often do major movies get made, let alone movies released in the summer among superhero blockbusters, that are about two people over age sixty trying to put the spark back into their relationship? Very few, and even fewer that are made with wit and intelligence. The story is simple: Kay (Meryl) has been married to Arnold (Jones) for thirty-one years, but any emotion felt between the two has been lost. They sleep in separate bedrooms, they don’t talk about anything, they don’t even touch each other anymore. She realizes the marriage is doomed if she doesn’t do something to save it, so she drags Arnold to Maine to spend a week in intensive counseling with the renowned Doctor Feld (Carell). By opening up to the therapist and each other, they find what’s lacking, and what needs to be fixed, before one of them might decide it’s too late.

Hope Springs is not the most visually arresting movie—much of it takes place in one drab room with three people just talking to each other—but the performances are so great and the dialogue is so truthful that even when the movie feels like a series of one-act plays, it works. These scenes crackle with a perfectly timed rhythm that make them pure joy, to the point that some of them seem too short, even at eight to ten minutes. Meryl and Jones have a tremendous chemistry that makes them feel like a real couple, both when they’re in a bad place, and when they finally reach a better one. What works especially well is screenwriter Taylor’s insistence that Kay and Arnold not have an easy road toward an authentic reconciliation; until the last few minutes, it’s not clear if the two will be able to work through their problems. This element gives the film an effective level of unpredictability, even though in our hearts we know they’ll find love again. While Frankel lays it on too thick at times with some ill-timed pop songs—Annie Lennox’s saccharine “Why” toward the end of the movie is a prime example—and while the happy ending is a little too abrupt, Hope Springs is definitely worthwhile viewing.

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The performances are all solid. Carell has the most thankless role as Doctor Feld, simply because he plays a character with no backstory or depth of any kind (although the DVD includes a great deleted scene that shows in explicit detail his marital woes). This is a movie about Kay and Arnold, and to have gone into the history of Feld would have been inappropriate, but Carell is a welcome dramatic presence in a film that plays up his stone-faced strengths. Jones, the Oscar winner for the smart-talking Samuel in The Fugitive and Oscar nominee for the similarly cynical Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln, is wonderfully subdued as Arnold. He’s physically perfect casting for this role, a man who’s emotionally closed off from his wife and scared to reignite their intimacy, but it’s his deeply felt performance that truly makes this film worth watching. Over the years, Jones has had the tendency to go over-the-top in his movies (think Natural Born Killers, Batman Forever, and JFK) and this quieter guy, who resembles more his characters from No Country for Old Men and the recent The Homesman, which also co-stars Meryl (they also appeared in A Prairie Home Companion together), is Jones at his best, looking inward and trying his best to come out of his shell. Jones is a pleasure to watch in Hope Springs, and his performance should have received more accolades.

Meryl is appropriately dowdy as Kay, with a blonde hairdo and thick black glasses that cover most of her face, and unlike many of her previous characters, she is someone who doesn’t often speak her mind—it takes every ounce of courage inside of her just to ask her husband to come with her to the therapy sessions. Many might think this performance was a step-down after her bravura, Oscar-winning work in The Iron Lady, but the magic of Meryl is that she refuses to be predictable in her choice of characters and that she’s unafraid to take on someone who might not necessarily be the most outspoken. She followed up her frumpy therapist character in Prime with her Queen of Evil in The Devil Wears Prada; she followed up her dancing and singing in Mamma Mia with her quietly damaged nun in Doubt. To look at The Iron Lady and Hope Springs back to back is to see an actress completely in command of her craft, and not afraid to show her own vanity. She’s not expected to look like a bombshell in Hope Springs, and her mousy appearance only helps in making Meryl the person disappear into this character that surely millions of women can relate to. So much of her brilliance in this performance comes from moments when she doesn’t even open her mouth but instead just sits and thinks and reacts. Meryl doesn’t have to go big to be great; at this stage in her career, just watching her be is more than enough. Hope Springs is not a great movie, but it’s an endearing one, and it features two of our finest actors in top form.

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