Four joyless lives make for one joyless movie

`We Don't Live Here' is ultimately vacant


August 27, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Well, it's no wonder you don't!

We Don't Live Here Anymore is the story of four people - two couples - trapped by malaise in lives of their own making, lives that may have once held promise, but have become joyless, directionless and nearly motionless. To be sure, the only real joy they seem to find is canoodling with each other's spouses, a should-be dangerous game that they've drained the life from, since the "illicit" couplings are pretty much an open secret.

It wants you to feel sorry for these unfortunate souls, stuck in their dead-end lives, their emotions worn to the nub, their feelings stunted by such overwhelming unhappiness. But the movie, for all its strained acting and aching sincerity, has the exact opposite effect. All I wanted to do was throw a cold glass of water in their collective faces and tell them to stop feeling so sorry for themselves.

One couple, the Lindens, is played by Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern. Jack teaches at a nearby university, she stays home and takes care of the kids. He's unhappy because ... well, he doesn't seem to like his job much, he comes in second in the jogging races he has with his best friend (more on him later), and he's no longer turned on at the sight of Terry, who apparently spends too much time trying to keep the kids in line and their marriage together to be alluring to him anymore.

Terry, for her part, tries. She insists she loves Jack, and keeps trying to make him happy, but it doesn't work. It galls her that she can't figure out why, can't figure out how she and Jack snuffed out the spark they once had. Most of all, she can't figure out why he can find satisfaction only in the arms of her best friend (more on her later). So she drinks too much, and she loses her temper, and she's prone to long speeches about why they're being so unfair to each other and just what is it Jack wants from her.

Their respective best friends, the Evanses, are played by Peter Krause and Naomi Watts. Hank's also a teacher at the nearby university, as well as a frustrated writer whose collection of rejection slips is growing far too quickly. He tries coming on to his students, but that doesn't work; fortunately, he's got Terry to keep him warm when the time is right.

Like Jack, he, too, has no interest in keeping his wife happy. But unlike Terry, Edith doesn't seem to mind all that much. What the heck, she's got Jack making eyes at her continually, and the two find plenty of opportunities to sneak out during the day and night to do some carnal reconnoitering.

And thus do the Lindens and the Evanses exist, and interact, and exacerbate each other's unhappiness. We watch as they all fall into an ever-blacker hole, and we wonder why their predicaments don't seem to bother Hank and Edith, or Jack, for that matter (he seems bewildered by the bleak turns his life has been taking, but doesn't seem intent on doing much about it).

Much of the pontificating is left to Dern's Terry, and she keeps challenging Jack to do the right thing, to make his marriage work. Her desperation is palpable, and Dern does her best to make the character as illuminating as she is verbose. But loaded down with all the big speeches, even an actor as talented as Dern can't pull them off; it's unfair of Larry Gross' screenplay that she's asked to carry almost the entire emotional load.

Yes, there's a core of emotional honesty to We Don't Live Here Anymore, a sense couples do face down these sorts of problems in real life, but it's specious and hollow. There's no character to root for in this movie, no potential triumphs or resounding failures, just the sense of people going through the motions because they can't bother to think of anything better to do. And that's not a lot to hang your moviegoing hat on.

We Don't Live Here Anymore

Starring Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Peter Krause, Naomi Watts

Directed by John Curran

Rated R (sexual content and language)

Released by Warner Independent Pictures

Time 101 minutes

Sun Score **

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