Novelists have long known that, for a certain kind of academic, summers are one long battle with temptation. How to concentrate on that new book when the campus is littered with tanned, barely-clothed freshmen? And what about that insightful article for The New Yorker, happily abandoned in favor of furtive assignations with the dean's wife?
This is the world of Roth and Cheever, of J.M. Coetzee and Jane Smiley. The longueurs of summer must be filled with something and it might as well be sexual indiscretion. We Don't Live Here Anymore has indiscretion to spare; what it lacks is Smiley's knowing humor and Roth's paint-stripping passion.
Based on two novellas by the late Andre Dubus, whose fiction also formed the basis for In The Bedroom, the movie gnaws on a ménage-à-quatre between two equally dysfunctional married couples. Jack and Terry Linden (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) have two kids, a sprawling, chaotic house and what might delicately be called a communication problem (she screams and spits, he lounges and sneers). Their best friends, Hank and Edith Evans (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts), have one child, a pristine home and a marriage numbed by Hank's serial infidelities.
Hank may be a louse, but Jack is the real piece of work. A passive/aggressive malcontent, taking a summer off from teaching English, he spends his time complaining about Terry's housekeeping (she's a slob), commenting on her drinking (she's borderline alcoholic) and avoiding her stabs at affection (she's too needy). Inventing transparent errands - car maintenance, library research - Jack sneaks off to motels and woodland grottoes to roll around with Edith, an affair grounded in his lust and her need for payback. Hank, meantime, leavens his creative writing classes with half-hearted flirtations. Even he's getting a little bored with himself.
As directed by John Curran (Praise), We Don't Live Here Anymore is a thoughtful but dreary examination of narcissism, disconnection and emotional dishonesty. By turns pretentious and impenetrable, Larry Gross's dialogue made me yearn for the clear, zinging cruelty of Neil LaBute's similarly themed Your Friends And Neighbors. Listening to Jack and Hank discuss women, or Jack and Edith over-analyze their affair, you realize these guys no longer know how to feel, only how to intellectualize. What should be stirring the heart is banging around in the head.
"Sometimes I think I may love you even more than I think I do," blurts Jack to Edith in a postcoital moment. Oh, please.
The actors, however, play this material with stunning commitment. Watts is luminous and dreamy, while Ruffalo and Krause inject their characters with just enough soul to save them from being completely contemptible. And though most will recognize Krause primarily from HBO's Six Feet Under, some will recall his wary, intelligent acting as the cornerstone of 1998's short-lived, underseen TV series, Sports Night. In his hands, Hank comes across as more lost than pathetic, a man unaware of how far he's drifted from any love, other than the one he feels for himself.
But, hands down, this is Dern's film. Sinewy and haggard, her face brutally lit to expose every bone and thumping nerve, she gives Terry an elemental power. In a movie that's too cool and too detached by far, Terry is the one we cling to, because she's the only character driven by real passion. Her fights with Jack are terrifying reminders that adultery isn't an intellectual abstraction and Dern, perhaps channeling some leftover fury at Billy Bob Thornton, is uncomfortably authentic. Terry wants to claw her husband's eyes out, and, by the end of the film, so do we.