Jack and Hank are professors at a small college in rural Oregon, and they are best friends. Jack is sleeping with Hank's wife, Edith. Hank seems to know this and seems not to mind. In part this is because he wants to sleep with Jack's wife, Terry, who is also Edith's best friend. Not only does Jack not mind, he goes out of his way to push Terry into Hank's arms.
Ah, academic life.
Not that anyone much enjoys themselves. Adapted from two novellas by Andre Dubus, We Don't Live Here Anymore is the unhappy cousin of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a dark meditation on human weakness and desire. The film is as constricted and unrelenting as a play: Apart from the four protagonists' young children--who exist primarily to throw their parents' transgressions into stark moral relief--there seems hardly another living soul in their quiet college town. As a group or in pairs, Jack & Terry & Hank & Edith eat, drink, jog, shop, fight, and make love together.
Jack, guilty over the affair with Edith, projects that guilt onto his wife Terry. He accuses her of lusting after Hank even as he pushes her toward him, reveling in the details of his friend's advances. He sets logic traps for her and finds pleasure when she squirms in them. At one point he simultaneously denies that he's fallen out of love with her and blames her for the fact that he has: "That's not true. It's never been true. And I'll tell you something, when you say shit like that, for one minute it is the truth." Terry responds to these provocations with erratic mood swings, alternating between rage and forgiveness, between bursts of manic housekeeping and bouts of alcoholic sloth.
Hank and Edith, a little more upscale than their friends, burn much cooler. Hank, a committed narcissist and serial philanderer, is every bit the manipulator that Jack is, but without the remorse. Indeed, he considers his adulteries a social good, explaining to Jack, "I refuse to let anyone go unloved. ... Love everybody you can." Edith, too, seems perfectly serene, even as she sleeps with her husband's best friend out of some combination of spite and curiosity. Unlike Jack and Terry, who wake the kids with hurled accusations and dishware, Hank and Edith talk around their problems in elliptical codes. One night in bed Hank tells Edith he's proud of "how far you've come, how strong you've gotten." Does he mean strong enough to cheat on him? Edith can't be sure.
With its tight psychological focus, We Don't Live Here Anymore is an actors' film, and it is blessed with an exceptional quartet. Mark Ruffalo, an actor simultaneously masculine and boyish, jaded and innocent, plays Jack as a decent man trying desperately to justify his indecent behavior. By conveying this core of weakness and self-loathing, Ruffalo humanizes what could otherwise have been a monstrous character. As needy, neurotic, weight-obsessed Terry, Laura Dern delivers a performance so raw it is frequently painful to watch. (One can only hope that her nearly skeletal figure was achieved specifically for this part, and not in response to the Hollywood imperative that actresses shed pounds as they accumulate years.) Edith, who buries her feelings under a layer of mischievousness, and Hank, who may not have any feelings to bury, are harder to get a handle on, but Naomi Watts and Peter Krause (of HBO's "Six Feet Under") nonetheless do an exceptional job of bringing them to life.
Despite such terrific execution, however, We Don't Live Here Anymore is a deeply flawed film. The stories from which it was adapted were written in the 1970s, as was Larry Gross's original screenplay, but director John Curran set the film in the present day. A number of reviewers have pointed out some of the resulting anachronisms: It's a little odd that neither Terry nor Edith works outside the home; Hank's melodramatic burning of his novel manuscript is rendered a bit ridiculous by the fact that we have seen him writing it on a laptop. The deeper problem is that the spouse-swapping storyline itself seems very much of the '70s. (Hank's free-love philosophizing could have been lifted almost verbatim from "Love the One You're With.") But rather than let the film explore the behavior of couples in crisis at a moment when ideas about marriage and sex were very much in flux--as Ang Lee did in The Ice Storm--Curran aims for a more timeless moral: These are the ways we injure those we love out of envy, disappointment, and selfishness. At one point in the movie Terry suggests to Jack that people who abuse their spouses are "not like us"--that is, not relatively normal, affluent Americans. Everything else that takes place in the film is essentially a rebuttal of Terry's observation.