Mark Ruffalo is Jack, one of those shaggily handsome college professor's who, by appearance, is a sensitive type—a guy who could only cheat on his wife Terry (Laura Dern) if he were in love—but who, in reality, is passive-aggressive and trickily manipulative. He's also masochistic. Still, this doesn't make him unsympathetic. The object of his affection is the luminous, but lost Edith (Naomi Watts), the wife of writing professor Hank (Peter Krause), a serial philanderer and struggling novelist. Meeting in river beds for afternoon trysts or upping the ante in cheap hotels (their excuses are always the same—going for a run or shopping), Jack and Edith embark on an affair that's so real, at times there's very little about it that's sexy. For instance, after what Jack calls a vigorous round of f-ing, Edith complains about Hank refusing to visit a marriage counselor. "What an odd girl you are," Jack exclaims as she sucks all the sexuality out of their "hot" experience.
The two couples have their share of problems, chiefly, there is little passion left in their marriages. Terry is a horrid housekeeper and a heavy drinker (in fact, all the characters appear to drink heavily) with a temper. Jack complains about the laundry; at one point, their young son's sheets are soiled by bed-wetting and not changed after three days. Their kids are loud and boisterous, but well fed, healthy (Terry does not allow candy and Jack treats them to some sugar laden pancakes one morning), and, for the most part, happy. In this loud, but bohemian household where their little daughter asks things like "Do you love mommy anymore, daddy? I heard you fighting," there's a hands-on, earthy approach to child rearing. In spite of surface sloth, the kids don't seem too upset and their parents truly love them.
Opposing wildly is Hank and Edith's household, which is immaculate to the point of being cold. Edith is the perfect housewife, making breakfast for the early-rising family as they quietly listen to classical music. Their well-behaved daughter, clearly intelligent, has that sad, only-child face that betrays a knowing sense of discord within her family. This is never expanded on in that children-are-wise way, but it's a pervasive feeling you get from a little girl who watches Space Programs on TV and takes Irish dance classes with an intense, serious face. An impressive scene shows Hank and daughter inside an ice cream shop where Terry spies them through the window. Hank is so gloomy faced and self obsessed, he doesn't notice Terry flagging them down while his daughter lingers, joylessly, over a banana split. What's he depressed about? The fact that a poem is being published by The New Yorker and not his novel? It's a selfish, babyish attitude that Terry is quick to point out. Still, he's taken his daughter out to "celebrate" his success, something he appears to be doing as a façade. Or, he could simply be bored. Hank is an intriguing character in that he's borderline sociopath, has an unctuous manner, and is semi hate-able, but he does manage to reveal shreds of humanness underneath it all (but to what extent, we do not know).
Almost overly-human is Terry, who, in rightfully suspecting Jack's infidelity (but not with Edith), increases the level of their fights. So upset is Terry that she takes off with Hank and has furious sex with him in the family car. And she doesn't stop there—to goad Jack, Terry reveals the gory details in a particularly spiteful speech. The scene is a masterful work of dual sympathy. We don't blame Terry for cheating on Jack, though we know her decision is less than healthy. But as we watch Jack's mind wrapping around the incident—trying to act like he doesn't care (he IS cheating after all)—we know he HAS to care on some level. In this moment, we see that these people are so confused; the blood on the tracks may never be cleared.
And that's how the film is left. Through the picture's excellent ensemble (Dern, in particular gives a brave, ugly/compassionate performance), We Don't Live Here Anymore raises the bar on domestic drama. Though many claim life gets easier with age, We Don't Live Here Anymore shows that, instead, it becomes muddled, exceedingly layered, and, in many ways, highly immature. People are born selfish, and years of compromise can create an often unsettling mid-life need to find oneself coupled with extreme guilt. As James Thurber asked, humorously, "Is Sex Necessary?" We Don't Live Here Anymore asks--are affairs necessary? The answer? Another question--Is marriage necessary?
Read More Kim Morgan at her blog Sunset Gun