Movie review: 'We Don't Live Here Anymore'

AdulteryEntertainmentMoviesMark RuffaloArts and CultureLiteratureNaomi Watts

3 stars (out of 4)

Adultery, that most dangerous game of America's intellectual classes, is the subject of "We Don't Live Here Anymore," a chamber drama based on two of Andre Dubus' short stories and directed with finesse by John Curran.

Curran has a fine cast: Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern as one erring New England college faculty couple and Naomi Watts and Peter Krause as the other. And, thanks to Dubus, he has a superb story, one that might qualify for that special adjective, "Bergmanesque."

Just as Sweden's Ingmar Bergman specialized in realistic dramas of moral torment ("Scenes From a Marriage") so Curran and writer/adaptor Larry Gross open up a vein of sin and damnation in a bucolic New England college town. The movie shows what seems at first a simple, passionate affair and then reveals its complexity and consequences. Literature teacher Jack Linden (Ruffalo) cheats on his wife, earthy Terry (Dern), by taking up with shining-eyed Edith (Watts), the wife of his best friend and fellow teacher Hank Evans (Krause). And soon, Jack has driven Terry into an affair of her own--with serial adulterer Hank, who has been wreaking erotic havoc with students.

Both couples are attractive, in their 30s, and, most important, have young children, who are quiet witnesses to the unfolding traumas.

The two couples' reactions to the affairs are quite different. Jack and Terry, with a classically American vein of sexual puritanism beneath their '70s academic cool, are more guilt-racked. by what they're doing. Hank and Edith, no less randy, are more sophisticated and "European" in their approach: Edith knows Jack is a fling, while Hank is an urbane seducer whose all-American looks mask a "theoretical" amoralism and who may be even more manipulative than we first realize.

Director Curran is an American who was raised in Australia, where his 1998 feature debut "Praise" won multiple Australian film prizes, and Gross is a longtime Hollywood pro whose best-known credits include Walter Hill's "48 Hours" and "Streets of Fire" and Clint Eastwood's "True Crime." But despite their seeming distance from American academia, you can appreciate quickly how well this diverse pair draws these people, how trenchantly they evoke a common moral dilemma of post-sexual revolution America and how convincingly they and the four main actors re-create it all on screen.

In recent years, Ruffalo has actually hewed out a "Mark Ruffalo" type (narcissistic, boyishly charming, diffident, ironic, self-absorbed) and here, he delivers his all-around best performance since his break-out part in "You Can Count on Me." His Jack is one of the best portrayals of an ambivalently tormented and tormenting adulterer in any recent movie, domestic or foreign.

Dern, who plays the most vulnerable of the main characters--good-hearted but slatternly Terry--balances Ruffalo perfectly. Watts, who also co-produced, puts a wonderfully giddy, headstrong but secretly dangerous quality into Edith. And, as the manipulator Hank, Krause very cannily reveals both Hank's brains and humbuggery and, perhaps, the reasons he suffers from writer's block. (Can such a devious man pour out his heart in prose?)

Curran handles the story with marvelous ease and clarity, keeping us always on track, in the moment. The movie, full of shocks of recognition, creates a whole, moving and honest experience, one where you can hear leaves stir in the trees as clearly as you feel the guilty hearts beat.

Dubus' original stories are much different and far more poignant, but he still provides the filmmakers with an excellent scenario, as his "Killings" did for the makers of "In the Bedroom." Perhaps the reason lies in his impurely Catholic sense of sin and redemption.

Watching "We Don't Live," some viewers may become impatient with the qualms of Jack and Terry, as opposed to the more untrammeled sensuality of Hank and Edith. But that dramatic clash of values is what makes "We Don't Live Here Anymore" such a stirring film. Usually American marital problems are left to the soap operas; it's nice to see them tackled by experts, piercing personas and peeling open hearts.

We Don't Live Here Anymore

Directed by John Curran; written by Larry Gross, based on the short stories "We Don't Live Here Anymore" and "Adultery" by Andre Dubus; photographed by Maryse Alberti; edited by Alexandre de Franceschi; production designed by Tony Devenyi; music by Michael Convertino; music supervisor, Laurie Parker; produced by Harvey Kahn, Naomi Watts, Jonas Goodman. A Warner Independent Pictures release of a Renaissance Films presentation of a Front Street Pictures presentation; opens Friday. Running time: 1:41. MPAA rating: R (language, sexuality).
Jack Linden - Mark Ruffalo
Terry Linden - Laura Dern
Hank Evans - Peter Krause
Edith Evans - Naomi Watts
Sean Linden - Sam Charles
Natasha Linden - Haili Page
Sharon Evans - Jennifer Bishop

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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AdulteryEntertainmentMoviesMark RuffaloArts and CultureLiteratureNaomi Watts
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