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'We Don't Live Here Anymore' and the cinema of misanthropy.

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.

But Terry is right, and the film is wrong. Removed from their historical context, the characters in We Don't Live Here Anymore become complete moral outliers. Sleeping with your spouse's best friend--and encouraging your spouse to sleep with yours--just isn't how any but the exceptionally perverse would deal with marital disappointment today. In the last film adapted from Dubus's work, In the Bedroom, normal characters were driven to moral extremes by a horrible precipitating event. But Jack and Terry and Hank and Edith are responding to no such extraordinary circumstance. No one has been killed. They're not trapped on a desert island or in a Turkish prison. Aliens have not promised to destroy the Earth in seven days. The characters in We Don't Live Here Anymore do what they do merely because they are all selfish and weak.

In the end, for all its intelligence and sophistication, We Don't Live Here Anymore is just another entrant in the contemporary cinema of misanthropy, a genre pioneered by Neil LaBute and Todd Solondz in the late '90s. (Probably the best example to date was LaBute's debut film, In the Company of Men, which ridiculously portrayed a sociopath and his flunky as American Everymen.) All too often such films are applauded by critics and discerning moviegoers as paradigms of artistic bravery and truth. As David Denby put it, in what seems to me a dubious compliment, they appeal to an audience "attuned to a harsh look at everyday life." The operating assumption seems to be that the darkest portrayals of human nature are also the most accurate: Those monsters on the screen are us, or at least who we would be if we thought we could get away with it.

That is, of course, a load of rubbish. Yes, human beings comprise dark impulses and concealed resentments and secret frailties; but they also comprise quiet sacrifices and uncalculating generosities and hidden moral reserves--as even the most harshly attuned audience surely recognizes deep down. But it's an easy step from disliking the false and shallow uplift of the typical Hollywood product to mistaking literate films about human cruelty for works of genius and authenticity. There may be an element of self-flattery as well: Like horror aficionados who take pride in their ability to endure cinematic dismemberments, fans of the LaBute-Solondz school can congratulate themselves for not flinching away from the ugly "realities" on screen. The unfashionably happy truth, however, is that films that portray human beings as relentlessly venal and weak bear no more resemblance to reality than do those in which everyone is brave and kind and good looking. That's why In the Company of Men told us very little about the American workplace. And why, despite its dramatic virtues, We Don't Live Here Anymore tells us very little about the American marriage.

The Home Movies List:
Out of Time
The Long Goodbye (1973). Yes, Robert Altman's updating of the scattered, brilliant Chandler novel was an intentional subversion for a more ironic age. But did Marlowe really deserve this? If that weren't enough, the film gave Arnold Schwarzenegger (billed as "Arnold Strong") a small but crucial early role. We see how that's turned out.

The American Friend (1977). Another example of '70s-era reimagining run amuck, this time by Wim Wenders. Having Dennis Hopper, at the height of drug-addled Hopperdom, play the cultured and meticulous murderer Tom Ripley may be the boldest casting against type of all time. Pity it didn't work.

Planet of the Apes (2001). We all know director Tim Burton's interests are primarily visual, but could he really have been so oblivious to the political context of the 1968 original? Rather than even try to update its themes--about race, nuclear war, religion--he basically ignored them and focused on his loping monkeys.

The Stepford Wives (2004). Another remake of a politically charged B-movie, this one at least recognized that it needed to adjust its concerns for the twenty-first century. Unfortunately it did so in decidedly ugly fashion. Ruth Franklin explains far better than I could.