We Don't Live Here Anymore
First screened and reviewed in September 2004
Director: John Curran. Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Peter Krause, Haili Page, Sam Charles, Jennifer Bishop. Screenplay: Larry Gross (based on the short stories "We Don't Live Here Anymore" and "Adultery" by Andre Dubus).

Twitter Capsule: Dern rightly acclaimed but film exposed Watts', Krauses's limited range. Time capsule of casting trends.

VOR:   Beyond Dern's powers and above her pay-grade to single-handedly make this a necessary watch. Proximal to stories that get told all the time. Sundance used to be for something else.

Photo © 2004 Warner Independent Pictures
It's not that they don't live here anymore, it's that they never lived anywhere: the protagonists of John Curran's drama of marital stalemate each manage to embody basic crises in a widespread social institution without ever reminding us of Earth as we know it. Jack and Terry Linden, as played by Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern, and Hank and Edith Evans, as implied by Peter Krause and Naomi Watts, are never quite characters so much as they are the four obligatory points on the film's narrative quadrangle. Desperate for something to say about modern marriage and its heavy ballast of unhappiness, We Don't Live Here Anymore takes the wholly pedestrian approach of comparing and contrasting two couples within an almost entirely abstract landscape. We barely know where we are, and it hardly matters if we do or don't, since the film's exterior shots mostly amount to an archetypal wood for Jack and Hank to race through and a quaint Jungian riverside where Jack and Edith engage in some picturesque, postlapsarian rutting. There is also a bridge over that river, which the inhabitants of this Everytown apparently must cross amid any possible walk, trip, or errand, and which rarely fails to induce an eminently predictable flashback in the mind of whomever traverses it. This danged bridge, which is recycled almost as annoyingly as Gwynnie's little photo-counter in Sky Captain, becomes an unbelievably relentless symbol of both the basic connections between people and the well-trod avenues that longterm couples eventually tire of retracing in their relations with each other. Or maybe there's some dark, intended reverberation of the old homily, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it." These characters have sure enough come to it, but their stalled, unimaginative movie proves you can bring four well-bred stars to a crossroads but you still can't guarantee that anything of note will happen there.

Beyond these occasional cutaways to the great outdoors, we spend almost the entire movie inside the homes where these people don't live anymore (except insofar as they do). The men have been given jobs as university professors, and as an academic myself, I am always tickled by how often screenwriters assign this career with two forms of built-in condescension, as though small-college professorships were not only an instant symbol of dead-ended, disappointed lives (see also the neutered screen version of The Human Stain) but also a convenient motivational excuse for adult characters who never seem to do very much. The women, meanwhile, do just as little, but their desultory movements are even more obvious because no one has bothered to give them jobs at all. In a way, this decision justifiably evokes a milieu, since the loneliness and creeping estrangement of people who follow their spouses to remote institutions of learning can truly foster a rare breed of scornful resentment. But in another way, the virtual anonymity of Terry Linden and Edith Evans (Edith Evans?!)—woven from the timelessly banal contrasts of blond/brunette, chilly/tempestuous, and neat-freak/pigpen—signals that the script is really at loose ends trying to psychologize beyond the level of the hoariest possible clichés. Since We Don't Live Here Anymore is the kind of film that self-consciously embarks on a mission of dissecting the human animal, the script's total inadequacy in laying out convincing, textured terms—much less in reaching worthy or notable conclusions—presents, you might say, a real problem.

In case you're still interested, the premise of this thing is that the Linden and Evans marriages are both foundering, or drifting, or whatever, which leads first to one bout of cross-pollination between Ruffalo's Jack and Watts' Edith, and later on to a kind of revenge liaison between Dern's Terry and Krause's Hank. At least, we gather that's what happens, because despite the overt geometries of this script, it almost can't be bothered with the Terry-Hank affair, so engrossed are the director and screenwriter with the thoroughly unremarkable pas-de-deux between Jack and Edith. If you're wondering why the asymmetry in the movie's attention is so pronounced, you'll have to wait for the closing-credit reel to get your answer, when we notice that, hey, isn't that Naomi Watts billed as one of the producers, and ooh, Mark Ruffalo as an executive producer? A great deal about this puzzling and redundant film starts clicking right then. For instance, if you've been asking throughout how come Watts' Edith looks radiant and porceline even when the other characters sharing the same spaces seem kind of rumpled and glum, well Sherlock, I might have a clue. This has got to be the least interesting work that Velvet Goldmine cinematographer Maryse Alberti has ever delivered, and I refuse to hold her accountable given the persuasive evidence of producer meddling and two-dimensional directing.

In fact, the only breakup that really registered with me during We Don't Live Here Anymore was my own official parting of ways with Naomi Watts, a hyper-employed actress who simply hasn't proven too interesting either before or since her lucky strike with David Lynch. Naomi and I might get back together later, if I decide that the problem wasn't her, it was me, but for now I am totally oversold on her narrow means of conveying the hackneyed anguish of pretty sufferers. Basically, I'm ready to start seeing other people. The end of the film needs a lot from Edith, and Watts' acting just isn't substantial enough to give it. Then again, it must also be confessed that Edith, as written, comes across as the most resoundingly boring character in the film, to include the peripheral children. What's a pretty actress to play?

If We Don't Live Here Anymore were a musical quartet, Edith would be a flute in a minor key, Jack would be a rather melodramatic bass, Hank would be some esoteric bit of percussion, used sparingly, and Terry would be a deep and melancholy brass that every now and then spouts an atonal improv or a blaring, arresting solo. Laura Dern comes across here as the only performer who decided to really push her material instead of just obeying its actor-bait recipes for overcooked malaise. Flinging around a moppish hairstyle of loose and overlong auburn tresses, her face a collage of annoyance, false cheer, and something approximating pure, distilled contempt, Dern is so committed to her part that even though she doesn't seem arrogant enough to steal a scene on purpose, I do wonder if the other actors were concerned about how they were measuring up. Even Dern gets sunk by the preposterously scripted confrontations between Terry and Jack, but she at least commands attention when she's around, and she elicits a much nastier and less predictable performance from Ruffalo than Watts ever draws out of him.

Still, this movie remains a four-part dirge that need not have been written, and certainly need not be listened to. We are so bonked over the head with Jack and Terry's particular form of misery that, by the middle of the film, we get frustrated that Hank and Edith remain such enigmas. Then, by the end, we're more than ready to leave our questions unanswered if only we can finally make a break for the exit. People who are comparing this film to Albee, who has had the poor luck to become a ubiquitous point of comparison, are lazily relying on the thinnest possible notion of one play, the perennial Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Go read Albee's phenomenal script for A Delicate Balance, though, or watch Alan Parker's searing film Shoot the Moon from 1982 and find out what kind of heat a melting marriage can really give off in the right dramatic context. True, We Don't Live Here Anymore isn't quite going for the same themes or temperatures as either of these pieces, but worse, what it does seek to express is something much more meager. Still worse than that, what it actually articulates is next to nothing at all. Grade: C–

Sundance Film Festival: Best Screenplay
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Dern; tie)

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