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    We Don't Live Here Anymore

    Double trouble

    "We Don't Live Here Anymore," based on two Andre Dubus stories about adultery in changing times, lacks the necessary smolder.


    "Adultery" — now there's a word with a fire-and-brimstone ring to it. Somehow "infidelity" seems less harsh — as though the consequences were any less grave.

    Directed by: John Curran.
    Written by: Larry Gross.
    Adapted from: Andre Dubus' We Don't Live Here Anymore and Adultery.
    Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Peter Krause, Naomi Watts, Sam Charles, Haili Page, Jennifer Bishop, Jim Francis, Amber Rothwell.
    Cinematography: Maryse Alberti.
    Edited by: Alexandre de Franceschi.
    The late Andre Dubus ("In the Bedroom"), a powerful writer and a committed Roman Catholic, penned his short stories "We Don't Live Here Anymore" and "Adultery" in the 1970s, when "adultery," as the defining label for sexual relations outside wedlock, was briefly eclipsed by the non-judgmental "open marriage." That was a decade of expansion; with the economy going full-tilt, education and employment opportunities were increasing across the population, and a feeling of optimism permeated much of the culture. Some thirty years later, money is tighter and America's moral landscape is pockmarked with betrayals by corporate heads, politicians and the clergy. The time may be right for the somber reflections director John Curran and screenwriter Larry Gross offer in their new film based on Dubus's stories, but their picture of contemporary marital discord is so unrelievedly dreary, audiences may very well beg off with a "not tonight, dear."

    We Don't Live Here Anymore  
    Buddies Jake (Mark Ruffalo) and Hank (Peter Krause) are college instructors — of literature and creative writing, respectively — who run together when not working, and hang out dancing to favorite tunes with wives Tracy (Laura Dern) and Edith (Naomi Watts), who in turn share a close friendship. On the surface, things are not so great between Jake and Tracy; parents of two, they barely maintain their cluttered home on Jake's salary — Tracy is overwhelmed by the kids, mounting bills and a little too much booze. On the surface, things are good between Hank and Edith; they have a bright little girl, and Edith is a competent mother and domestic manager. Hank may be a blocked novelist, but that's a ripple, not a tsunami.

    Below the surface, however, things are murkier. Put simply, Jake, unsettled by his wife's emotional instability, is having an affair with Edith, who reckons it's payback time for Hank's numerous extramarital dalliances. Jake sidesteps Tracy's suspicions; for her part, Edith is troubled that Hank seems too uncaring to be aware of his wife's cheating with his best friend. Part of the frisson of their liaison comes from the times Jake and Edith skate perilously close to divulging their secret to the other two spouses, and here is where the wider theme of truth-telling is sounded. All four characters are having difficulty confronting themselves: Tracy is in denial about her alcoholism, Jake doesn't want to face his midlife crisis, Hank can't accept the limits of his literary talent, and Edith avoids acknowledging the dead spot at the center of her marriage. The overall lack of honesty is as stifling as either career frustrations or messy house.

      We Don't Live Here Anymore
    At the point it gets this gritty the drama should take off, but for a movie about confrontations, revelations and self-discovery, "We Don't Live Here Anymore" doesn't feel particularly truthful. Dern, a good actress not seen enough, is saddled with the clunkiest parts of the script; although she gets to express big emotions, her dialogue feels written, not naturally spoken. Not her fault, of course, but when toward the end of the film she spews some rather arch invective at Ruffalo, a measure of sympathy for her character is lost. Watts, who has been superb in other, more ambitious pictures ("Mulholland Drive," "The Ring," "21 Grams"), here fails to convince fully. The manipulative aspects of Edith come through all right, but there's no real fire in her trysts with Jake. Ruffalo and Krause are good at playing these cads, but professors who stray are familiar enough movie presences, almost to the point of clichÄ.

    Maryse Alberti's cinematography, saturated by dark tones and soft lighting, suits the moral fuzziness of the protagonists. Rick Willoughby's art direction and Dina Zecchel's set design are spot-on, and the supporting cast is fine. John Curran, who made a big splash with his 1998 debut feature "Praise," has stumbled with this sophomore effort. A movie about sex should be far more lively, and its complications more highly charged than what happens in this mournful ensemble piece.

    AUGUST 13, 2004

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