Academic Affairs: Mutual Adultery in a Quiet College Town

John Curran's impressive 1998 debut, Praise, chronicled the love affair between a pair of Australian slackers living day-to-day in a state of dazed, drug-enhanced marginality. For his follow-up, the American-born director has returned home for an equally gripping and no less well acted character-driven romance.

Adroitly adapted by Larry Gross from a pair of short stories by Andre Dubus, We Don't Live Here Anymore concerns the complementary adultery involving two thirtysomething academic couples, Jack and Terry Linden (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) and Hank and Edith Evans (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts). They're all socializing in the first scene—it takes a moment to sort out who's with whom and a bit longer to calculate what might have happened when Jack and Edith, who are already embarking on an affair, skipped out to get more beer, leaving Terry and Hank to their own devices.

It's summertime and theirs are idyllic lives of noisy desperation. Terry drinks too much and berates Jack; Hank suffers writer's block and rejection—in one scene he burns his unpublishable manuscript on the backyard barbecue grill for an audience of neighborhood kids. (Then he writes a poem about it, which he sells to The New Yorker.) Meanwhile, feckless Jack rides a kid's bicycle to meet tightly wound Edith in the woods on a Saturday afternoon—their tryst is an opportunity for them both to sneak cigarettes as well as sex. Is the supremely self-absorbed Hank oblivious to the affair or is he encouraging it? Does Jack gloat when Terry tells him that Hank made a pass at her?

Everything comes to a head amid the celestial spaciness of Hank's publication party. (Suddenly, the emptied-out college town seems full of people.) Curran is resolutely focused on his characters' mood swings and deceptions; he's largely nonjudgmental, although at one point, the script threatens to unleash the most punitive of clichés and sacrifice a child. (As a Dubus story provided the basis for In the Bedroom, it seems possible.) But the filmmakers have another agenda—and as it turns out, so do Edith and Hank.

We Don't Live Here Anymore is spellbinding stuff—in part because of its vivid characterizations. But while Dern's gaunt, smoldering intensity is oddly complemented by Krause's opaque diffidence, Ruffalo and Watts are the stellar couple. Ruffalo's Jack—at once furtive, funny, hapless yet smarmy—is his most achieved and abject character to date, while Watts's Edith projects a fragility that might be made of tempered steel. The fact is, Naomi Watts is a tremendous movie actress. She need only sidle on camera and glance over the terrain to claim the scene. What's her secret? Like the great Isabelle Huppert, Watts doesn't radiate feelings so much as she absorbs them.

 
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