Jack & Terry & Hank & Edith

Postmodern infidelity brews in We Don't Live Here Anymore

The slow-burn dissolution of two marriages in We Don't Live Here Anymore offers enough intellectualized suffering to fill a hundred New Yorker stories.

Adultery asserts itself not five minutes into John Curran's film, as Jack Linden (Mark Ruffalo) and Edith Evans (Naomi Watts) both jump at the chance to break away from a party to take a beer run, leaving their respective spouses, Terry (Laura Dern) and Hank (Peter Krause), in their lustful dust. Jack and Edith's wildfire affair only illuminates the sour, decaying marriages in which the foursome has found themselves.

Rather than glee, Jack and Edith's infidelity produces anguish and disgust. Curran effectively conveys the doldrums of afterglow — the sense that an indiscretion contaminates the world around them, swathing children and spouses alike in crud. How the affair causes both Jack's and Edith's marriages to finally crumble is the most interesting feature in what can otherwise be a ponderously "important" but emotionally hollow analysis of infidelity's cruel undertow.

We Don't Live Here Anymore often feels like Reality Bites-brand slackers playacting at tweedy adulthood, trying to convey how, in the post-college, post-kids landscape, real ennui — and real disappointment — set in. Except here, it takes on an oddly '50s dimension, where stay-at-home moms Edith and Terry are outfitted in Anthropologie chic, but are chastised like slipshod June Cleavers for not cleaning enough and forcing their poor husbands to make do with breakfast from a box.

Like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? projected into 2004, the wives of We Don't Live Here Anymore are anachronistic academic spouses, who spend their days listlessly photographing water lilies (they were apparently artists once) or shopping at the local market.

Sexual boredom and professional disappointment lie at the heart of the film, but those feelings are expressed by the men, not the women. Pre-feminist throwbacks without apparent dreams or ambition of their own, Terry and Edith just want to be loved. The way adultery unfolds in We Don't Live Here Anymore suggests it is less an expression of female will and desire as something men let happen to their wives out of indulgent boredom in Hank's case, or repressed rage in Jack's.

We Don't Live Here Anymore is not without psychological texture. The way Jack, for instance, assuages his guilt over his affair by mentally torturing Terry for her sloppy housekeeping and lack of ambition is a painfully accurate rendition of covert human behavior. Dern is the clear standout in Curran's film. Terry's pitiable insecurity gives her an interior, poignant dimension the other characters lack.

But what is portentous and subtle in short stories can quickly become hokey when spelled out in the explicit visuals of film, like Curran's recurring image of a train crossing as some symbolic line for its characters between staying and fleeing. Adapting two short stories by Andre Dubus, Curran is clearly a smart filmmaker. But he's in over his head and struggles mightily to translate nuanced, textured writing into a film that ends up feeling like literary-angst-by-numbers, much like another film adaptation of Dubus' work, the unsatisfying In the Bedroom.

Without proper treatment, the complaints of the bourgeois can come off as pretentious and self-indulgent. The couples in We Don't Live Here Anymore are mind-numbingly analytical and joyless, even in the moment of their greatest sexual release. Despite evidence to the contrary, it is hard to believe anything erotic even unfolds between the tortured Jack and Edith. The only time the characters seem to possess the spark of life and a soul is when they are with their children and the disastrous potential of their choices is mirrored in their eyes.

Despite their attempts at frolicsome lives — dancing to vintage vinyl and drinking wine, or bicycling through the forest in their gorgeously idyllic small town — the characters remain masochistic mopers. One longs for the far more entertaining, self-deprecating wit and insights of Richard Linklater's similar treatise on adult regret and romantic dissatisfaction, Before Sunset. Yes, marital unhappiness can be the worst kind of torture. But unless you can find some wisdom or catharsis beyond that, there's little new ground covered that hasn't already been addressed by better analysts of marital ennui like Ingmar Bergman, Mike Nichols and Woody Allen.