We Don't Live Here Anymore
Directed by John Curran. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts, Peter Krause, Laura Dern. (2004, R, 101 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 3, 2004
Although We Don’t Live Here Anymore is taken from two short stories by Andre Dubus, it was the recollection of another story – by Raymond Carver, one of Dubus’ contemporaries – that gnawed at me throughout the film. That story, called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," concerns two married couples, best friends, whose individual histories of marriage and adultery come to light over the course of one evening and one big bottle of booze. In a few short pages, Carver expertly conveyed the quietest of shifts, from relative ease, optimism, and comfort in the company of good friends to a state of mind more dangerous and more desperate. We Don’t Live Here Anymore boasts the same dynamic of two married couples mired in alcohol and betrayal, but it lacks that initial period of ease, the quiet before the storm; instead, things begin rottenly and go south from there. Jack (Ruffalo), an English professor at a small New England college, is unhappily married to Terry (Dern), a housewife; her alcohol consumption and his remoteness are just a few causes for the nightly shouting matches their children overhear. Jack’s best friend, Hank (Krause), is a stalemated writer and womanizer married to the long-suffering, near-catatonic Edith (Watts); they don’t fight, which amounts to something even more awful. (It’s worth noting that neither woman appears to have a job. While their frustration with the drudgery of running a house isn’t exactly unworthy, one does wonder if these women skipped the week in Women’s Studies on The Feminine Mystique.) Within minutes of the film’s opening – significantly, before we have any grasp on who these characters are or what makes them tick – there is the first infidelity, when Jack and Edith go out for more beer and end up snogging outside the gas station. Later that night, Jack has the audacity to accuse Terry of messing around with Hank in his absence, kickstarting another screaming match (and it’s a testament to the inherent likeableness of Ruffalo that the audience doesn’t completely write off his character from that moment forward). In truth, Jack is no better and no worse than the other three in this twisted roundelay of sexual and emotional duplicity. The two couples go the cinematic equivalent of nine rounds and then some, the blows coming first through lies, then (and far more brutally) through the truth. There’s something compulsively watchable about the nimbleness with which each goes for the jugular (and entirely realistic – who better than one’s spouse knows exactly what comment will cut the most?). Indeed, We Don’t Live Here Anymore is a pretty spot-on distillation of human weakness, but my God, must they all be so inhumane in the process? There are some interesting ideas kicking around here – especially about the imbalance of power in any given relationship, but director Curran and screenwriter Larry Gross are too timid in their exploration, relying instead on the audience’s familiarity with this particular brand of New England, egghead ennui. The thing’s prettily shot, to be sure, and aided by a pretty terrific cast, but would that their opaque characters netted empathy, rather than a distant pity. We may watch them go round after round of loaded silences and howling brawls, but we never get a handle on what they’re fighting about when they fight about love.