Thursday, September 30, 2004

YOUR CHEATIN' ART

Movie: We Don't Live Here Anymore

Posted on Thu, Sep 30, 2004 at 4:00 AM

****

Our Rating: 4.00

At this late date, you'd be justified in harboring zero interest in the infidelities of a couple of college instructors and their wives, but We Don't Live Here Anymore renders its surreptitious mixed-doubles games with enough privacy-invading moxie to change your mind. This latest interpretation of the writings of Andre Dubus (brought to the screen by director John Curran and screenwriter Larry Gross) portrays domestic discord with a squirmy accuracy that's a workable substitute for conceptual freshness.

Curran and Gross are on the right track from the start, conveying the fragility of two marriages by consistently placing us in the company of the "wrong" sets of partners. Jack (Mark Ruffalo) is married to Terry (Laura Dern), and Hank (Peter Krause) to Edith (Naomi Watts) – but mere minutes into the film, we've seen Jack share so many more frames with Edith than with his own wife that we're unsure who the true soul mates are. Sure enough, Jack and Edith are having a hot-and-heavy affair that involves lots of outdoor sex, guilt-induced vomiting and concern over telltale smells. "I wonder how we'll get caught," Edith ponders, voicing a romantic fatalism that's just one of the story's keenly observed details.

Jack and Hank teach at the same university, where the latter has ample opportunity to indulge his own roving eye. We learn fairly quickly that he has designs on Terry; waiting to see if she'll reciprocate is the suspenseful flip side of Jack and Edith's doomy path toward exposure.

The latter plot is the dominant one, and it's buoyed by Watts' well-rounded performance. Sometimes, her Edith is predictably conscience-stricken; at others, she's a sexual kamikaze, nearly titillated by the hurt she's capable of causing. Though Dern's role is largely reactive, she approaches it with enough sincerity to halt her ongoing devaluation as an actress. The least satisfying of the four leads is Krause's Hank, a strangely peripheral figure whose arc is as indecipherable as the one the actor has been given to play on the increasingly arbitrary Six Feet Under.

Yet somehow, the movie remains navigable amid its characters' own impetuousness. Dern's Terry strikes a keynote when she declares, "Even adultery has morality to it." Endowing disloyalty with etiquette sounds absurd, but like a lot of things in We Don't Live Here Anymore, it's just irresponsible enough to ring true.

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