We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004): Dissection of Two Marriages, Starring Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts, Laura Dern

There is much to praise about the intensely intimate “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” a subtle dissection of two marriages in a small university town.

Larry Gross’s multi-nuanced screenplay, based on two short stories by Andre Dubus, “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Adultery,” concerns wife-swapping and marital discontents.

Keenly observed and laced with humor, Gross has constructed a narrative whose emotional power derives from the accumulation of details, some of which at first appear to be insignificant, even trivial.

Though not as pared-down or minimalist, in its quiet moments and silent pauses, “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” recalls Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” which is also an anatomy of a marriage and friendship, told in reverse order. John Curran’s film is a sexier, more provocative drama than Pinter’s work, which was made into a film in 1983 with Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, and Patricia Hodge.

“We Don’t Live Here Anymore” substitutes judiciously the more customary convention of having a triangle in the center with a quartet, two married couples. The film charts the illicit affair of one married man with the wife of his best friend, and how their liaison upsets the delicate and deceptive balance upon which the two marriages, and by extension, most modern relationships, are based.

Since the story is set in a small campus town, and involves two couples, viewers might expect to see a more modern version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” which was made into a movie by Mike Nichols. Rest assured that in narrative strategy, visual style, and acting, the two movies could not have been more different.

Jack Linden (Mark Ruffalo of “You Can Count on Me”) and Hank Evans (“Six Feet Under” Peter Krause) are college instructors: Jack teaches literature, and Hank creative writing. They are also the best of friends (jogging between classes, drinking at the local pub after work), and both are loving fathers of young children.

Despite these similarities, the men’s home lives are markedly different. Whereas the Linden household is chaotic and cluttered, the Evans’ is meticulously clean and ordered. Jack’s wife Terry (Laura Dern) is a headstrong but distracted homemaker, overwhelmed by the endless chores and struggles to make ends meet. In contrast, Edith (Naomi Watts) is quiet and tidy. The two women are also close friends, and all four socialize in dinner parties where, after putting the kids to bed, they booze and joke, laugh and flirt.

This seemingly established equilibrium is thrown into disorder in the very first scene, when during one wild party, Jack and Edith volunteer to go to the local store and buy beer, while Terry is left with Hank. Jack and Edith carry on in the car, while back home, Hank makes an unexpected move and kisses Terry. What begins as a spontaneous, playfully lascivious affair between Jack and Edit gradually evolves into a full-fledged, risky infidelity that crosses all boundaries. At one point, Jack and Edit are having wild sex in the corridor, while Hank is showering upstairs.

Gross’s novelty is in depicting a rather complex tale from four alternating viewpoints. Without taking sides, or telling the audience who to empathize with, Gross may be embracing Jean Renoir’s philosophy in “Rules of the Game,” namely that each person has his own reason.

Indeed, each member of the quartet is given a chance to present the story from his/her subjective point of view, and each gets more or less equal screen time. Replete with a wry and knowing humor, “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” discloses the perverse logic of infidelity, tackling the thorny issue of whether adultery has its own rules of the game.

The story captures the paradoxical actions of thirtysomething individuals as spouses torn between their libido and instinctive behavior and the more rational urge to save their marriages and families. It shows not only the denial and complicity but also the cruelty that occasionally accompanies adultery, as when, for whatever reason, spouses encourage their partners to engage in extramarital affairs.

While depicting affairs might be an easier task (the audience always enjoys being a complicit witness), a tougher challenge for filmmakers is to engage the viewers in the messy aftermath of affairs, the accusations and counteraccusations, the brutally candid confrontations in which all four characters are forced to sift through their emotional wreckage and regain their balance, if at all.

As much as I admired Soderbergh’s splashy debut, “sex, lies, and videotape,” which also concerns adultery, it felt like a movie written by a young man (Soderbergh was 25). The movie suffers from an intentionally caricaturistic portrait of the adulterous husband (Peter Gallagher), a schematic depiction of two sisters who are opposites (Andie MacDowell and Laura San Giacomo), and a neat resolution, in which the repressed, frigid wife bonds with and cures an angelic impotent voyeur (James Spader).

A more demanding a mature work, “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” could not have been written by a young writer. The film is well directed by John Curran (who had previously made the well-received “Praise”) and splendidly acted by three of the actors in the ensemble, the exception being Krause, who gives a weak performance.