The Agony of Adultery

Even a stellar cast can't jump-start this dreary domestic drama

In We Don't Live Here Anymore, an overwrought domestic drama about a pair of entangled couples, Peter Krause plays philandering writer Hank Evans, struggling to produce as he propositions female students at the college where he teaches. Blithely pretentious, fretful only over his writing, Hank observes from a distance as his wife burns though a passionate affair with his best friend. Meanwhile, Hank's novel, which awaits acceptance by a publisher and which he burns, ceremoniously, partway through the film, is titled Always Already.

That, it turns out, would have been a good title for the movie. Though it opens with immediate, pounding conflict -- a hothouse of a party, sexy dancing, and a steamy beer run followed by screaming allegations -- we soon learn that everything is already happening, has been happening, and will continue to happen in exactly the same way for the majority of the film. Edith (Naomi Watts), Hank's wife, has fallen in love with Jack (Mark Ruffalo), Hank's best friend and the husband of her best friend, Terry (Laura Dern). As they plot their liaisons, Jack and Edith must contend with the academic summer -- in which they, their spouses, and their children are always home and expected to be home -- and with their feelings for Terry, to whom Jack feels obligated and whom Edith adores. Terry suspects them and has, we are given to understand, for quite some time.

What this brooding, agonized movie takes as its subject is the in-between time, the period after the adultery has begun and before it has catalyzed, or destroyed, whatever it's bound to destroy. We Don't Live Here Anymore wants to show us two marriages (and families) in the throes of domestic difficulty, foundering in the wasted terrain of broken communication and festering resentment. Its goal is admirable: the portrayal and examination of a kind of trouble that we don't usually want to see, and that is painful to confront. The problem, and it is a large one, is that there is no movement for a solid hour. What we witness is four miserable people lodged solidly in the concrete of their own making, wailing and wailing for help. And nobody budges.

The actors, particularly Ruffalo and Dern, do a fine job of embodying the vicious, even violent battlefield that a neglected marriage can become. But they can't rise above a belabored script, written by Larry Gross and based on two short stories by Andre Dubus (that's Dubus père, a master of the short form, and not the son, of House of Sand and Fog fame). A Dubus story can sustain marital gridlock for quite some time, because Dubus gives us access to the interior lives of his characters; he writes about consciousness and unconsciousness, which is where the action is. In the film, it's almost impossible to track the particulars of any one character's thoughts, though it's not for lack of trying. Director John Curran shows us plenty of pensive stares backed by dissonant music (cellos, cellos): Edith stares out the window, Jack gazes into the river, and Hank goes glassy-eyed before a computer screen as blank as his mind. But this is hardly drama.

Also, because we begin in medias res, we can't quite get a purchase on whether to root for healing or accept devastation. Should we have hope for Jack and Terry's marriage? Was it ever good? A few sepia-toned flashbacks take us to a time when Jack desired his wife, and we know from the action that she loves him still. But it's not enough. We don't see enough of his character to know whether he is worthy of Terry and her love, or whether she would do better to find someone else. In fact, we don't see enough of any character to form an empathic connection. We're never meant to like Hank, whom the film is quick to portray as a pontificating asshole, but what about the other three? Their paralysis is so unattractive that, when accompanied by their faults, the scales tip heavily toward antipathy. We need more than we are given if we're meant to worry over them.

An hour of dour stagnation is a lot to take, even with good acting. So when the action finally does shift, toward the end of the film, it is a welcome relief. Suddenly, the characters open up to us (and even, slowly, to each other); we see more of who they are and where they might go, where they are thinking of going. The revelations are rewarding and contrast starkly with the dark subterfuge (nobody admitting anything) of what has gone before. Interestingly, the power of these moments is contingent upon our having suffered through the stagnation; the characters are awakening, and we are awakening with them. But the price is too high. By this point, the movie has already lost us.

There is one gorgeous scene. When Edith and Jack meet to say goodbye, they are tender, loving, and sorrowful. They never properly kiss; instead, they brush their faces against each other, bumping foreheads against cheeks like gentle animals, maybe lambs or baby goats. Slow and lingering, they say almost nothing, and nothing need be said. We know, as they do, that it is over between them, and that their love for each other will have to run its course without them. Such a moment is not easily achieved in film (or anywhere else). What a shame that it comes at the end of a dark, defeated mess.

 
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