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The Forgotten Four 

Screenwriter and longtime Hollywood observer William Goldman has written that a star has nothing to do with the commercial success of a movie, but that a successful film nonetheless requires a star. It needs a star to secure production funding. And it needs a star to "open." This year's success of Alexander Payne's Sideways with Paul Giamatti as the biggest name in the cast proves that Goldman's rule doesn't always hold. But the nigh invisibility of director John Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore illustrates ways in which Goldman's principle often applies.

Structurally and emotionally, We Don't Live Here Anymore extensively resembles Mike Nichols' Closer, which benefited from Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Natalie Portman in its cast. Closer went into wide release and ended up with a couple of Oscar nominations. We have seen the players in We Don't Live Here Anymore, but none is quite a star. Its limited release was largely confined to art houses. In greater New Orleans, it played only at the Causeway Cinema and nowhere south of Lake Pontchartrain, this despite being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and being selected by many national critics as among the year's best films. Closer is a superb production with terrific performances, but its roots as a stage play show through, and Nichols was unable to transcend the almost pathological selfishness of the story's characters. In such regards, We Don't Live Here Anymore is a superior work. For those who liked Closer, I recommend We Don't Live Here Anymore, released last month on DVD and arguably the best movie not to win an Oscar nomination this year.

Based on two short stories by Andre Dubus (whose work was earlier adapted for In the Bedroom) and written for the screen by Larry Gross, We Don't Live Here Anymore is the story of two couples in a small college town. Jack Linden (Mark Ruffalo) teaches literature and Hank Evans (Peter Krause) creative writing in the English department. Hank has a too-well-known history of cheating on his wife, Edith (Naomi Watts). He propositions his students and his colleagues' wives, and he was notoriously involved with a French professor. In a chat over drinks with Jack, he enunciates a philosophy that would place few limits on indulging his lustful instincts.

Jack, in contrast, is seemingly a dedicated family man. He cooks for his two young children, plays catch and rides bikes with them. And if we did not know it from the film's opening moments, we would be shocked to learn that he's having a torrid affair with Edith. They snatch daring kisses at cocktail parties. They rendezvous in a forest preserve for languorous afternoons of lovemaking on a blanket. Edith rents a motel room, and Jack bikes over to join her, pretending to be doing research at the library. Jack's wife, Terry (Laura Dern), is suspicious, but she doesn't know what to do other than provoke nasty arguments attacking Jack's manhood, and this strategy, of course, makes things worse, not better. Hank may be suspicious, too, but his flip, cynical nature would never allow him to reveal it.

The characters in We Don't Live Here Anymore are developed in great depth and portrayed with great skill. (Had the picture done any box office, acting nominations would surely have followed.) The people are flawed, but with the exception of Hank, less distant than their counterparts in Closer. They are selfish and weak, but (again excepting Hank) they are needy rather than narcissistic. They wish to be better people than they are. Even Hank evinces a vulnerability that houses hope for redemption, a quality only Portman's character possesses in Closer.

As the film progresses, we are able to discern the dynamics that drive each character's actions. Hank's excuses are the weakest: a philosophy of sexual hedonism. Edith wants to be wanted, and though, in fact, Hank may actually want her, he wants her only on his own terms. Valuing her less than she deserves, he tries to manipulate her the way he might a character in one of his novels. Edith has been so damaged by Hank's infidelity that she needs only an infusion of self-esteem to leave him.

Jack and Terry's relationship is more complicated still. Darting flashbacks relate Terry's romantic allure. But she's more natural a lover than she is a wife and mother. She's dizzy and unfocused. She isn't employed, but she's a terrible cook and homemaker, barely remembering to keep food in the house, an emblematic failure when Jack is always running out for supplies and into Edith's arms. But Terry's love for Jack is nonetheless tangible and unqualified. Unfortunately, it's also desperate and so emotionally violent it pushes him away rather than draws him in. In the words of Mick Jagger, you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need. In the words of Andre Dubus, characters often get exactly what they want, but it seldom turns out to be what they need.

click to enlarge John Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore, recently released on DVD, is superior to the more popular film about dysfunctional couples, Closer.
  • John Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore, recently released on DVD, is superior to the more popular film about dysfunctional couples, Closer.
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