Two couples, close friends in a college town. Jack Linden (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife Terry (Laura Dern) live with their two kids in somewhat funky disarray, financially scraping by, the romance apparently drained from their marriage by familiarity and the discontents of marginal living. Hank Evans (Peter Krause) and his wife Edith (Naomi Watts) live with their cool daughter in coolly ordered comfort as Hank coolly sleeps around and not-so-coolly struggles with his often-rejected novel.
The men are both on the college faculty and they run together; the couples party together and the eye contact from the get-go between Jack and Edith presages the steamy affair that quickly gets under way. Inevitably a web of lies is woven to conceal the adulterous affair from Hank and Edith; equally inevitably they will find out and there will be confrontations, soul searching, and lives will change.
There’s much to be said for We Don’t Live Here Anymore. The screenplay by Larry Gross (True Crime) is based on two stories by the late Andre Dubus, whose fiction was also the basis for In the Bedroom. (His son, Andre III, wrote The House of Sand and Fog.) In a film more about character and dialogue than plot, Gross has an ear for the way people speak, especially these sophisticated academics who know how to use wit as a weapon. His story avoids predictability, but there’s a definite satisfaction in the resolution; when things ultimately get sorted out, the result seems appropriate to the characters and relationships as they have been drawn. This is not a black and white movie world. It’s a world full of shades of gray and it takes them all a while to understand what’s really going on in the multi-layered complexities of their marriages and friendships. There are fine distinctions between sex and love, between passion and caring–each character seems to find a different place on the scale of marital emotions.
Director John Curran (Praise) mounts the script in straightforward fashion, eliciting richly drawn characterizations by his ensemble of first-rate actors. Ruffalo (Collateral, You Can Count on Me), who seems to be the busiest actor in Hollywood these days, realistically projects the frustrations and conflicts he feels in his marriage, while Dern (Focus, Dr. T and the Women), initially somewhat backgrounded, emerges in climactic scenes with the emotional transparency which has become a hallmark of the quality of her work. Naomi Watts (21 Grams, Mulholland Drive) has somewhat less direct dialogue as Edith, whose physical passion for Jack is at least equalled by her repressed rage at Hank. But Watts has an uncanny ability to convey more than her lines alone allow; her body language and her range of facial expression speak volumes–it’s clear that her feelings for Hank are both complicated and contradictory.
With its precisely defined universe of four key characters, We Don’t Live Here Anymore sometimes has the feeling of a stage play on screen and the intimacies shared by these characters sometimes seem like more than one wants to know. They’re all unhappy and uncomfortable and the viewer is trapped in their heartaches with them. As good as Curran’s work with his actors is, he does little with his camera or editing to provide any relief from the hothouse emotions raging. Audiences may or may not feel that the insights skillfully shared justify this acutely claustrophobic microcosm of domestic misery.