Although people's responses will vary considerably depending upon individual tolerance to cheating, deceptive, amoral natures of central characters, pic is adaptation of stories about mutual adultery between two couples by the late Andre Dubus. Warner Independent Pictures should launch pic into broad specialized release to good returns.

Although people’s responses will vary considerably depending upon individual tolerance to the cheating, deceptive, amoral and self-absorbed natures of the central characters, “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” is a skilful and nuanced adaptation of stories about mutual adultery between two couples by the late Andre Dubus, who wrote “In the Bedroom” and was the father of the author of “House of Sand and Fog.” Tony literary material, a fine cast and intelligent script and direction mark this as a promising acquisition for new Warner Independent Pictures, which should be able to launch the picture into broad specialized release to good returns.

A tale of emotional treachery and attempted recoupment among civilized folk in a university environment, the film trades in such fundamental conflicts as the desire to keep one’s family together versus the lure of freedom, and respecting a close friend’s marriage versus giving in to mutual lust for his or her partner. The proper ethical and moral attitudes toward such issues are understood, but the very Catholic Dubus was interested in pushing beyond such judgments to analyze the lives of “sinners” and their attempts at redemption, and Larry Gross’ finely tuned screenplay follows suit with a minutely detailed account of the wages of deception.

Jack (Mark Ruffalo) and Hank (Peter Krause) are good-looking, bearded and slightly rumpled best friends and teachers, and they and their wives socialize together a good deal. At the outset, Jack is on the verge of consummating a boiling desire for Hank’s beauteous wife Edith (Naomi Watts), who’s equally interested. Jack feels guilt with regard to the effect such an infidelity will have on his wife Terry (Laura Dern), but believes he can get away with it, whereas one of the first things the more serene Edith says after she and Jack get it on is, “I wonder how we’ll get caught.”

Unlike his buddy Jack, Hank has the European outlook of a Lothario, believing that you should love your wife and kids and screw whoever you can. He’s the most self-involved and egotistical of the quartet, brooding through a spell of writer’s bloc and celebrating with a party when a poem is accepted by the New Yorker.

With a little prodding from Jack, Terry recounts how Hank came on to her and kissed her during a drunken gathering. This provokes contradictory feelings in Jack, whose affair with Edith is now in full swing and who might be relieved to know his wife was fooling around as well, even with his best friend. Relations between Jack and Terry, who have a daughter and a younger son, keep going south; Terry drinks and provokes fights, and Jack accuses her of being a lazy mother and for keeping “the foulest house I know,” both charges that seem accurate. In fact, the weakest dramatic link in the story is Terry, who seems to have nothing going for her; she is generally a big drag, even if she shows signs of what might once have been a sensitive and open personality.

All the same, Hank takes the dive with her. But when Terry spills the beans, and gives her husband a blow-by-blow account of her sex with Hank, she becomes furious because Jack isn’t reacting the way she wants him to. A bit later, when it’s all on the line and Jack admits to Terry that he loves Edith, Terry reacts by going on an all-night cleaning spree.

It’s here that more sophisticated viewers might feel the film misses a narrative opportunity; once everyone’s dirty laundry is out in the open, and if every one of this foursome is happier sleeping with a member from the opposite couple, wouldn’t this be the perfect set-up for an understanding — a design for living? That way, the families could stay together, the kids wouldn’t have to suffer and everybody would be getting what they want. Where’s Ernst Lubitsch when we need him?

But, no, these characters must go through the wringer, which they do with varying degrees of angst, remorse and insight. The most intense focus is upon Jack, whose feelings are torn, and who comes perilously close to implosion before clarifying what’s most important to him, which actually comes as little surprise. In spite, or perhaps because of the fact Jack’s character is explored the most thoroughly, he may be the character many viewers will have the most trouble with, simply because he’s weak, indecisive and opaque in addition to being deceptive along with everyone else.

Be that as it may, Ruffalo, in his underplayed manner, fully reveals the man in all his desires, hesitations and heartaches in relation to both his wife and lover. He’s matched exceptionally well by the shimmering Watts, who once again displays her quicksilver acting ability to slip from one telling mood to the next. She has superb moments here.

Krause, from “Six Feet Under,” is entirely credible as a good-looking jock who’s probably got quite a few years of easy conquests ahead of him. But capable as she is of spewing venom at her character’s deserving husband, Dern can’t generate much sympathy or understanding for Terry.

Pic will certainly advance the recognition and career of director Curran, an American who lived for many years in Australia and who scored internationally with his Aussie 1998 feature debut, “Praise.” His staging, feel for widescreen compositions and work with actors are all strong, and he has assembled a fine team of collaborators who have delivered uniformly impressive work, notably cinematographer Maryse Alberti, production designer Tony Devenyi and composer Lesley Barber, whose supple score is only marred by some obtrusive chanting in spots. Set in New England, pic was convincingly shot in the Vancouver area.

We Don't Live Here Anymore

Production

A Warner Independent Pictures release of a Renaissance Films presentation of a Front Street Pictures presentation. Produced by Harvey Kahn, Naomi Watts, Jonas Goodman. Executive producers, Ruth Epstein, Mark Ruffalo, Larry Gross. Co-producers, Ken Lawson, Robert Lee, Sanford Rosenberg. Directed by John Curran. Screenplay, Larry Gross, based on the short stories "We Don't Live Here Anymore" and "Adultery" by Andre Dubus.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Maryse Alberti; editor, Alexandre de Franceschi; music, Lesley Barber; music supervisor, Laurie Parker; production designer, Tony Devenyi; art director, Rick Willoughby; set decorator, Dina Zecchel; costume designer, Katia Stano; sound (Dolby Digital), Lindsay Bucknell; sound designer, Curran; supervising sound editor/designer, Steve Smith; associate producers, Michael Carlin, Michael Shepard; assistant director, Robert Lee; casting, Ellen Lewis, Audrey Skalbania (Canada). Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 2004. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Jack Linden - Mark Ruffalo Terry Linden - Laura Dern Hank Evans - Peter Krause Edith Evans - Naomi Watts Sean Linden - Sam Charles Natasha Linden - Haili Page Sharon Evans - Jennifer Bishop

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