- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

“We Don’t Live Here Anymore” makes a miserable case for adultery.

Adapted from short stories by the late misanthrope Andre Dubus, who furnished the movies with “In the Bedroom” posthumously, the film simulates a dismal state of intimacy with a pair of squalidly estranged faculty couples. The source material dates back to the aftermath of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Dustin Hoffman evidently bailed out on the project about 30 years ago.

Shot in British Columbia and set in an unspecified Oregon college town, “We Don’t Live Here” is sort of a “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” twofer. The suspense consists in guessing whether last-gasp salvage measures would preserve one tattered union, two or none at all.

The husbands, who share lackluster beards as well as demoralizing adulterous yens, are the faculty members. Mark Ruffalo’s Jack Linden lectures halfheartedly about Tolstoy in one sequence; Peter Krause’s Hank Evans teaches creative writing while waxing sardonic about his own publishing failures and flirting recklessly with coeds.

Jack’s wife Terry (played with haggard magnetism by Laura Dern) is a rawboned vessel of unhappiness who is revealed to be a domestic slob and borderline alcoholic. Hank is married to the shapelier, dishier Edith, played by Naomi Watts. Edith is so ripe for carnal payback that she prefers copulation against walls and towering redwoods. This alone would seem to portend a limited duration with Jack, a shortwinded and bookish weakling.

This delightful quartet is introduced while partying at the Lindens, where Hank is planning to make a pass at Terry and Jack and Edith slip away for stolen kisses while making a beer run. It’s fairly clear that the men have willed themselves into compromising and potentially home-wrecking situations, Hank at some point in the past and Jack as we become invisible guests in the chronically grungy Linden residence.

There are children to consider as each marriage teeters on the brink. Jack and Terry have a son and daughter in the under-10 range. Hank and Edith have a daughter, Sharon (Jennifer Bishop), who seems to have perfected a poker face and scathing outlook at the age of 10 or so. Recalling “In the Bedroom,” I kept expecting one or more of the kids to be mortally sacrificed on the altar of parental lust and weakness. Although director John Curran makes several feints of this unwelcome kind, it’s a relief to observe that he stops short of an ultimate sucker punch.

Working with skillful and camera-savvy actors, he gives the marital and erotic tensions an undeniable sharpness and conviction during expository episodes — before Jack and Edith begin thumping trees, let’s say. Mr. Curran also adeptly intercuts between households and rendezvous at the outset, so that one encounter is vividly and ironically contrasted with a simultaneous counterpart.

This structural finesse can’t withstand the squalor that permeates the plot and central characters, who wallow too systematically to rescue themselves as tolerable sufferers or salvage cases. There’s even a remarkably ugly metaphor that seems to summarize the movie’s perspective: Edith recalls watching a caged gorilla play with its own feces, and the filmmakers ape that sort of idleness, without having the excuse of either brute or captive conditions.

“We Don’t Live Here Anymore” leaves the moral neighborhood in a shabby condition.

*

TITLE: “We Don’t Live Here Anymore”

RATING: R (Thematic preoccupation with infidelity, domestic conflict and sexual candor; occasional profanity, nudity and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by John Curran. Screenplay by Larry Gross, based on short stories by Andre Dubus. Cinematography by Maryse Alberti. Production design by Tony Devenyi. Costume design by Katia Stano. Music by Michael Convertino

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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