Judge Patrick Bromley cheated once. At solitaire. He feels guilty about it to this day.
Why do we want what we can't have?
John Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore finds its basis in two short stories, the eponymous "We Don't Live Here Anymore" and "Adultery," by acclaimed author Andre Dubus (who also provided the inspiration for Todd Field's In the Bedroom). It was awarded the Waldo Salt Award for Screenwriting at last year's Sundance Film Festival. It features a remarkable ensemble cast of seasoned veterans and indie-All Stars. So, with all of this going for it, is the movie any good?
Yes. Yes, it is.
Facts of the Case
Jack (Mark Ruffalo, You Can Count on Me, 13 Going on 30) is married to Terry (Laura Dern, Wild at Heart). Hank (Six Feet Under's Peter Krause) is married to Edith (Naomi Watts, Mulholland Dr.). Jack and Hank teach together at the local college. Terry and Edith are best friends. Jack and Edith are sleeping together. Terry is considering sleeping with Hank, who sleeps with anyone. Hank may or may not know about Jack and Edith. Jack loves Edith. Edith loves Jack. Terry loves Jack. Jack loves Terry.
Marriage is complicated.
We Don't Live Here Anymore is the first of two partner-swapping dramas released in 2004—the second one being Mike Nichols's more widely-seen-and-appreciated Closer. The Nichols film plays like a sociology experiment, reducing its characters to only their desires and their cruelty—they're utterly self-absorbed and single-minded. We Don't Live Here Anymore, on the other hand, humanizes its characters; they have lives and jobs and families outside of their sexual partnerships, and their reasons for infidelity extend beyond lust or ego. Relationships are not a kind of battlefield for waging mental cruelty, but rather sticky, messy, difficult puzzles that change and evolve every day. That's why we don't just get the marital relationships; we get the relationships between friends, between parents and children, between teachers and students, between colleagues. These are people that have to shop for groceries, pay the plumber, and get the oil changed on the car—cheating does not define their existence; it merely provides a temporary escape from it. Curran captures the minutiae of everyday suburban life with a kind of heightened reality in sequences that alternate between darkly comic and pretentious; there is the occasional tendency to take his (admittedly beautiful) visual language to an almost self-conscious extreme.
The movie's tagline is inaccurate; the film is not about wanting what we don't have, but rather about whether or not we want what we do have. The characters that inhabit the movie's universe have found themselves unprepared for what their lives have turned out to be, and awakening to that realization has led to a kind of restless dissatisfaction. It is here that infidelity enters the picture, not as a means of achieving something greater than what one has, but rather as a means of avoiding one's current situation—escape by way of self-destruction. It's easy for critics to write a film like this off as "unpleasant" or "unlikable"—it's about unhappy individuals hurting one another, intentionally or otherwise—but such an attitude is far too dismissive. Curran has not made an unpleasant film, but rather one that is challenging, often painful, often beautiful, and which offers greater rewards with greater investment.
This is not the first film to deal with adultery—that's a rather long list—but it is one of the first I've seen to consider the lives of the characters in context to the choices they make (Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful, minus the disastrous third-act turn, also comes to mind). Unlike, say, the picture-perfect housewife cheated on by Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, Laura Dern's Terry has flaws—she drinks too much, she's disorganized, messy, and a little lazy. That's not to say that any of her shortcomings somehow excuse Jack's behavior, but simply acknowledges that we're dealing with people here and not cardboard cutouts (a notion overlooked even in the previously mentioned Unfaithful, where the Richard Gere husband character was too much of a saint to raise the right questions in viewers' minds). Interesting, too, that the two most openly flawed characters are also the only realists; though more screen time is devoted to Jack and Edith, it is Terry and Hank who are able to be honest with themselves about who they really are and what they want from their respective marriages (Hank on fidelity: "Love as many people as you can while you can"). Terry, for all of her foibles, also proves to be the smartest one in the film—not only in an intuitive sense (even before admitting it, she is aware of Jack's wandering), but also in having the wisdom to wholly accept Jack as he is, rather than an idealized or romanticized vision of who she hoped he would be, and the confidence and security to demand that he do the same. That Terry is the Soul of the movie is due in large part to Laura Dern's intense and fearless performance; her work here rivals that of Rambling Rose and reminds us that Dern is one of our most underrated actresses.
The screenplay for We Don't Live Here Anymore was awarded the prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting award at last year's Sundance Film Festival, but suggesting that only its script is deserving of accolades is a mistake. It's a fine piece of writing, but not the only thing that makes the film work; it's the combination of the script and Curran's nuanced direction and the work of a first-rate cast that give We Don't Live Here Anymore its power. Mark Ruffalo, here as in xx/yy, is redefining the flawed American male for a new generation (Michael Douglas took care of the generation prior); his rumpled, sleepy looks and casual slur suggest a man trapped at the threshold of adulthood—his disheveled appearance none-too-subtly reflecting the chaos of his life. Naomi Watts (who, between this film and I Heart Huckabees, seems to have the market cornered on icy perfection) is afforded what might be the film's best moment; more is said about her character and her marriage in that last line delivered to her husband than in the entire sum of the preceding scenes.
Warner Bros. delivers a technically accomplished but anorexic disc for We Don't Live Here Anymore. The film is presented in an attractive looking 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, complete with sharp detail and accurate, warm hues. The Dolby digital 5.1 soundtrack is effective, too, keeping the movie's dialogue front and center while still maintaining a strong balance with the music and effects. The disc's biggest fault lies in its almost total lack of supplemental material: no commentary, no interviews, no text reproductions of Dubus's original stories—just the film's theatrical trailer is provided as an extra.
We Don't Live Here Anymore is reminiscent of 1970s cinema, in that it's entirely character and dialogue-driven, and deals with adult themes and subject matter in a very personal manner. Of course, just about any film not based on a franchise, TV show, or video game, or that isn't entirely reliant on CG effects is said to be "reminiscent of the '70s" these days, but We Don't Live Here Anymore warrants such a comparison—it's one of the better relationship dramas of recent years, good enough to make even Paul Mazursky proud.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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