There’s a good deal of justice in the fact that when Hank Evans (Peter Krause), the philandering creative writing teacher who’s one of the four spouse-swapping characters in “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” finally sells a poem, it’s to The New Yorker. That’s because the movie, adapted by Larry Gross from a couple of tales by the late Andre Dubus, has the feel of one of the pretentious pieces of fiction that otherwise superb magazine occasionally makes the mistake of publishing. So “literary” that it’s drained of every drop of life and truth, it’s a drab slice-of-life-among-the-academic-set story whose lack of vitality is matched only by its air of smug self-importance.
The “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”-style scenario involves two couples at what appears to be a lesser state university somewhere in the northeast. Scruffily handsome but unhappy Hank and dour, rumpled Jack Linden (Mark Ruffalo) are colleagues in the English department, and they and their respective wives–glacial blonde Edith (Naomi Watts) and messy, undisciplined Terry (Laura Dern)–party together regularly. But unbeknownst to Hank, a campus Lothario who’s cheated regularly on his spouse, and the bedraggled, hard-drinking Terry, Jack and Edith are carrying on a clandestine affair. What passes for plot involves the misery each of the four feels for his or her situation and the disruption that occurs as suspicions mount about the endemic infidelity among them. Will the two families remain intact for the welfare of the children? Is forgiveness among them possible? Can any or all of the four be redeemed?
These are all interesting questions, but they’re dramatized in a highly affected, pseudo-intellectual fashion by director John Curran and his estimable but uncomfortable cast. Curran–who seems drawn to grimly depressing material if this film and his 1998 Australian picture “Praise,” about a couple of self-destructive slackers, are any indication–lays on the dingy collegiate veneer with a heavy hand: it’s all neat Scotches and bitter tears, with a heavy helping of depression on the side (I speak metaphorically–sometimes they drink beer and make cruel jokes), but it has about as much similarity to a true academic environment as the one found in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The foursome in front of the camera work overtime in their different ways to convey their annoyingly self-absorbed characters’ deep self-loathing. (They all should have diverted some of that emotion from themselves and directed it toward the script instead.) Ruffalo specializes in hesitant guiltiness, wrestling ostentatiously–and, given the circumstances, rather tiresomely–with his conscience; Krause brings the cool, sometimes smarmy cockiness and shabby good looks he displays in “Six Feet Under” to Hank as well; Watts exudes an icy cynicism that gradually morphs into something more pained; and Dern, with the least coherent character to play, offers a generalized portrait of a frazzled, insecure housewife and not much more. These are all fine performers, but they’re trapped in an arch, opaque narrative that strives to appear deep but never gets past flimsy. Physically the production is reasonably good; the design by Tony Devenyi captures the slightly seedy atmosphere of town and campus while fashioning convincingly different interiors for the two homes involved, and Maryse Alberto’s gloomy widescreen photography complements the vaguely nihilistic mood.
Andre Dubus was a serious artist, and the fact that his writing can be transformed into achingly acute cinema has been demonstrated by “In the Bedroom.” But “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” despite its obvious ambition, is a dull, unconvincing portrait of upper-middle-class marital angst, rather like a soap opera thoroughly scrubbed of its characteristic bad taste but equally unconvincing as a portrait of real life. It’s like one of Woody Allen’s old attempts to imitate Ingmar Bergman–cold, dreary and ultimately more pose than revelation.