Tommy Lee Jones remembers when he met Meryl Streep. It was back in the early ’70s, when they were both young actors in separate productions at New York City’s Public Theater. ”I would open a door to a small little balcony so I could look down from above where she was rehearsing, and I would just watch her,” says Jones. ”Finally, I was introduced to her one Sunday evening. We met in the middle of Astor Place. And I remember thinking she was angelic.” Though they both appeared in Robert Altman’s 2006 ensemble film, A Prairie Home Companion, they never exchanged any lines of dialogue. But now in Hope Springs, they play a Midwestern couple who endure a weekend of therapy to try to save their floundering marriage. ”I think of it as a romantic comedy about people who have been married for over 30 years,” says director David Frankel, who assumed the helm after Mike Nichols stepped out. ”The structure of the genre holds, and yet we’re talking about two people in their 60s.”
For Frankel, the project’s biggest allure was another chance to work with Streep, with whom he’d had a ball making The Devil Wears Prada. The three-time Oscar winner was already on board to play Kay, an Omaha woman with two grown kids and a part-time retail job at Coldwater Creek. ”It’s not a bravura performance like her Maggie Thatcher or even something as stylized as Miranda Priestly,” says Frankel. ”It’s Meryl’s real hair, Meryl’s real glasses, Meryl’s real face. It’s extremely straightforward and yet she becomes Kay instantly.”
The notoriously prickly Tommy Lee Jones might not seem like an obvious choice for a romantic comedy, but Frankel says the actor was his first pick to play Kay’s taciturn husband, Arnold. ”I talked to a bunch of other directors about what it was like to work with him,” says Frankel. ”Each of them said, ‘He wants the work to be great and he pushes everyone around him to be great.’ Having made The Devil Wears Prada, which is about a woman who demands excellence at every turn, I appreciate that.”
So Frankel went down to San Antonio to pitch the project to Jones in person. (”We met,” says the actor. ”None of it really stands out in my memory. I’m pretty sure we were polite to him.” Taciturn, check!) For his part, Frankel recalls that Jones voiced a real concern that Arnold, who works in a small accounting firm and is made queasy whenever he’s asked to open either his wallet or his heart, skewed too grouchy in an early draft of the script. ”He said, ‘I’ll do anything, I’ll be tough, I’ll be demanding, I’ll be closed up sexually, but I won’t be mean,”’ says Frankel. (”That’s right,” says Jones. ”It’s a trope — the bad daddy in a chick flick. And that’s what I thought would be boring.”) The actor’s instincts, says the director, ”were 100 percent right.”
The main source of Hope Springs’ humor, says Frankel, comes from Kay dragging a very reluctant Arnold off to a weekend in the titular coastal Maine town, where they squirm and emote on the couch. Steve Carell, who plays their earnest marriage therapist, is the film’s unlikely straight man. ”It’s a very simple, unmannered, very compassionate performance,” says Frankel.
Despite the cast’s extraordinary pedigree, one could see how a summer movie about grown-ups trying to save their marriage through talk therapy might terrify studio executives. So Frankel shot the film in just 37 days on a budget of roughly $30 million, the lowest he’s been granted for a feature film in two decades. ”But that’s how these movies should be made,” he says. ”You don’t go into it expecting to see lines of teenage boys waiting to get into Hope Springs.” On the other hand, their parents — who endured last summer’s melee of comic-book characters and flipping cars — could probably use the night out. —Karen Valby Aug. 10