The two Andre Dubuses, pí¨re and fils, write dark, literate fiction -- with complex emotions and thorny moral issues -- that lately have been the foundation for some dark, literate movies with noteworthy casts: from Dubus the son, House of Sand and Fog, and from the father, In the Bedroom three years ago, and now We Don't Live Here Any More, which studies the consequences of an extramarital affair among friends.
Where the stories of John Cheever revolved around the well-to-do, the elder Dubus wrote methodical tales that looked more at the middle class. In We Don't Live Here Anymore, the tangled quartet of adulterers and their spouses are Jack and Terry Linden (Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern) and Hank and Edith Evans (Peter Krause, Naomi Watts), who live in nearby rustic homes in a New England town. Each couple has two kids, and the men are colleagues at a small college, where Jack teaches literature, and Hank, who aspires to publish his poems and fiction, teaches creative writing.
We meet the friends as they drink, laugh and dance in the Linden kitchen on a moonlit night. There's no dialogue yet, just the requisite soundtrack ambiance of delicate piano and moaning strings. Soon we learn who's doing what to whom: On a beer run, Mr. Linden and Mrs. Evans smooch in the car and make plans for a sylvan tryst the following afternoon.
From there, the characters and their relationships patiently unfold, and our perceptions of them shift. In every small thing they say and do -- even in their lovemaking -- and in the ways they react to what others (including their kids) say and do, a thoughtful (if mannered) portrait emerges of marriage, love and human behavior. The men seem to be the more wise and generous of the four, and Dern's depressed, lovesick Terry the least.
Director John Curran, working from Larry Gross' adaptation of two Dubus stories, often cuts back and forth between all four characters to establish a dialectic and to synthesize what we learn about their lives. Gross' screenplay is stronger when he reveals things casually and not as strong when people talk too much and say too little. The actors perform well enough or even well, especially Ruffalo, who's effortlessly convincing as a mild-tempered man with some instinctive wisdom.
We Don't Live Here Anymore finally leaves you with the sensation that its characters too often speak their minds rather than their hearts, so it's hard to tell whether they act out of love or self-interest, which of course may be the point. "Even adultery has morality to it," Terry says, in the drama's most challenging assertion. One longs to see it explored with more than an orderly intensity. One longs -- I guess I'm saying -- for Bergman. But in life, as these four people learn, you should not want what you cannot have.