Jack & Terry & Hank & Edith
We Don’t Live Here Anymore
We Don’t Live Here Anymore is the kind of movie that looks great on paper. It’s based on stories by Andre Dubus (whose work was also the source for 2001’s In the Bedroom), with current indie favorite Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause (of HBO’s Six Feet Under) as professors at a college in Oregon, and Laura Dern and Naomi Watts as their respective wives. Cool literature and hot talent—how could it miss?
But it does. We Don’t Live Here Anymore is flat and featureless, its characters self-absorbed and unsympathetic, and its insights facile and unenlightening. Written by Larry Gross (from Dubus’ title story and a second one, “Adultery”) and directed by John Curran, the film never seems to get its act together; it’s always telling us one thing and showing us another.
Ruffalo plays Jack Linden, who apparently teaches Russian literature—at least, we see him reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and discussing it in class. But it’s a listless discussion; neither Jack nor his students seem able to summon any enthusiasm for the subject. We might even think that Jack is a student, reading Tolstoy as an unpleasant chore, if it weren’t for the fact that he’s sitting on the instructor’s desk at the head of the classroom. Are Curran and Gross trying to say that Jack is a dull and passionless person? Or are they adjusting themselves to a dull and passionless actor? (Personally, I’m beginning to wonder about Ruffalo. It’s been four years since he first attracted attention playing the feckless brother in You Can Count on Me; if he has any other characters in his bag of tricks, he might want to think about trotting one out.) Whatever the cause, the character of Jack fails to come into focus, forcing us to view him in terms of what we’ve seen the same actor do before.
This is a real problem, because Jack is the central character, and it doesn’t exactly draw us in when his passionless dullness carries over into the other relationships in the movie. The script tells us that Hank Evans (Krause) is Jack’s best friend, but we don’t see any friendship between the two men, only sullen indifference that morphs into open, almost hostile competition when they go running together.
It makes us wonder if Hank knows that his wife, Edith (Watts), is having an affair with Jack. Certainly, Jack’s wife, Terry (Dern), suspects it. The two couples spend a lot of time together, and Jack and Edith seem to always find excuses to run errands together: “We’re out of beer. I’ll go.” “I’ll go with you.” The only question in Terry’s mind is whether Jack is looking for excuses to be alone with Edith or finding excuses to leave Terry alone with Hank, hoping something will happen (Hank is a serial cheat) that Jack can interrogate her about. (“I wish you wouldn’t leave me alone with Hank.” “Why? Are you afraid of what he’ll do, or what you’ll do?”) Terry dulls the pain with too much wine, knowing that it only prods Jack further away.
In the background of all this are the children. Jack and Terry have a son and daughter, and Hank and Edith have one girl. Even the youngest of the three can sense that something is off-kilter in their parents’ relationship without really knowing what it is. The irony—and it’s none too subtle—is that the four adults are, if anything, more clueless than the kids; they think they’re doing what grown-ups do, but they have no idea how fundamentally childish they are.
The diffident affair between Jack and Edith; Terry’s frustrated, alcoholic confusion; and Hank’s reflexive lusting after every woman who crosses his path all lead to predictable consequences—too predictable, if anything. But the basic problem with We Don’t Live Here Anymore isn’t its predictability—we can sense that Larry Gross and John Curran intend that as a modern variation on the grandeur and inexorability of Greek tragedy. But there’s nothing grand or Greek about these four; they’re just a bunch of irresponsible, self-regarding whiners. Nobody could care as much about them as they do about themselves.