Your Friends and Neighbors

The cook, the thief, his wife, and her lover: (L-R) Mark Ruffalo, Peter Krause, Naomi Watts, and Laura Dern in 'We Don't Live Here Anymore'
Warner Independent Pictures

I don't remember if we were watching reality TV, the news, or a movie. "Why am I supposed to care about the trivialities of someone else's petty life?" my partner griped. "I've got enough to do worrying about mine." Yikes, I thought, that way lies dragons. If we don't care about each other's "trivialities"--and value our commonalities and differences--then we might as well lock ourselves up in some posh gated "community" where variety is limited to the beige spectrum. Of course, it's hard making that argument stick while viewing a show in which a wealthy porn star flips off her old high school. "It's art!" I yelped suddenly, two days later. "It's art that makes you care about other people's trivia!"

Then we argued about whether reality TV could be considered an art of sorts. But that's another story, and this is a review of John Curran's movie We Don't Live Here Anymore, which, in straight terms, lacks the art that would make this viewer care about two miserable spouse-swapping couples, Jack and Terry Linden (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) and Edith and Hank Evans (Naomi Watts and Peter Krause). Dern's fearlessly ravaged performance aside, this movie felt so interminably featureless that I swore if I were to ever meet such characters I'd wring their tedious necks. (Empathy? Bah!)

Terry and Edith are homemakers, one crappy and one tidy. Their husbands seem to be colleagues at a small college: Hank a creative-writing teacher with an attitude and an unpublished novel and Jack a literature prof. Jack and Edith are sleeping with each other. Edith apparently wants philandering Hank to realize what he's got. What Jack wants is fuzzier, except that, well, Edith looks like Naomi Watts. Eventually Terry and Hank sleep together. Terry says she needs the semblance of loving attention from somebody. Hank, I dunno. Wooing anyone besides his wife appears to be habitual.

Other critics have complained that, in the midst of all this fucking around, the characters do not struggle with the morality of their actions. Any kind of honorable behavior does seem the last thing these people desire to model for their children: The kids are neglected, passed off on babysitters, treated to screaming and dish breaking, told lies, and used to hurt one or the other parent. But the ugliness of the characters is not what's wrong with this film. I don't require fictional people to wrestle with moralities many real-life people don't credit. I just wish for something from them--a dream, an emotion, a conflict--that tangles with me; and that tangling in turn happens because of the director's and actors' artfulness with color, sound, edit, nuance. These are fine actors, but their characters' dreams and conflicts seem to be more assumed than expressed--and, as I didn't get the assumptions, I went untouched.

Caryn James of the New York Times lays the blame on Curran's use of the source material, two Andre Dubus short stories written in the '70s. Dubus's portraits of swinger husbands and wives waking up to the tedium of the '50s housewife ideal are period portraits, James suggests, that offer a grounding frame to Dubus's universal themes. Curran creates an everytime that doesn't provide historical clues to Terry's trapped rage or Hank's sexual piggy-ness or (most laughably) Jack's expectations for a superclean home.

But a more serious problem for this filmmaker is Curran's inability to make sight and sound speak to his characters' situations. I don't know why Jack keeps going to a forest bridge. I don't know what a repeated shot of a railway crossing sign means. The turning of the seasons is noted but not with any seeming significance. Why the ominous music as Jack watches his kids at the river (they don't drown)? How does the darkness of the Lindens' house relate to the brightness of the Evanses'? Who knows, and, um... who cares.

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