City Paper is not for tourists.
Anyone wondering about the verisimilitude of We Don’t Live Here Anymore won’t have to wait long for the reassuring line: The very first scene delivers “You’re drunk and we’re going to fight and you have that look on your face.” Spoken by a husband who’s explaining to his postparty, roller-coastering wife why he just wants to go to bed, that bit of dialogue and the tension-filled milieu it’s a part of ring so true that audience members may think that the scriptwriter bugged their homes.
Narratively similar to 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, John Curran’s please-God-no-more drama about infidelity among two couples immediately makes plain the affair between Jack (Mark Ruffalo) and Edith (Naomi Watts, who also produced), who grope each other on beer runs and use uninventive excuses to leave their homes for afternoon trysts. Meanwhile, the spouses each is betraying, Terry (Laura Dern) and Hank (Peter Krause), are mostly held in are-they-are-or-aren’t-they reserve, with hints contained not in actions, but in Terry’s words about Hank to Jack. The men, both English professors going a bit stir-crazy over the summer, are best friends, just like stay-at-home moms Edith and Terry.
Based on two short stories by Andre Dubus (whose fiction also supplied the story for 2001’s In the Bedroom) and scripted by Larry Gross, We Don’t Live Here Anymore snagged a screenwriting award at Sundance and is certainly thorough in its portrayal of marital misery. The two households couldn’t be more different: Jack and Terry live with their two children in chaos and clutter, where a typical day finds the kids yelling, Jack sarcastically dodging his wife’s attempts to spend time together, and the usually hungover Terry saying, “Fuck you” to the buzz of a completed dryer cycle. Edith and Hank, however, enjoy organized, chilly tranquility, with Edith presenting her quiet daughter and husband with Martha-worthy breakfasts before Hank runs off to his office to hit on students…er, do some writing.
Naturally, the situation gives various frustrated spouses and suspicious friends plenty to talk about. But if the time-bomb dialogue is spot-on throughout, We Don’t Live Here Anymore isn’t quite as incisive or moving as it wants to be. What’s lacking is much evidence of the love that precipitated such vitriol—Jack, at least, is given a couple of flashbacks to the good ol’ days, spurred by moments when he looks at his daughter and is reminded of his wife. Whatever drew Edith and clueless free-love advocate Hank together, however, remains a mystery, and the strong friendship between Edith and Terry is often referred to but never demonstrated. The near-constant bluster is squirm-inducing—Terry’s hissed play-by-play of an interlude with Hank in particular—but it soon wears thin.
While the relationships between the film’s characters may seem one-dimensional, the cast’s portrayal of these adulterers is not. Ruffalo is the biggest surprise, combining the chip-on-shoulder attitude he carried in You Can Count on Me with his subtle 13 Going on 30 expressiveness to play a reactive, fallen family man, his boyishness crushed under the weight of Jack’s unhappiness. (The beard helps, too.) Dern wrings every bit of misery out of her shallow role as a bored, alcoholic housewife, with Curran often zooming in on her hard angles to make Terry’s desperate loneliness overwhelm her every scene. Watts and Krause, though their characters are less theatrical, are also vivid in their portrayals of a couple whose joie de vivre, still on display around others, evaporates whenever they’re alone.
Despite all its concern with deception and betrayal, Gross’ screenplay never moralizes, and its matter-of-fact presentation of marriage gone south is leavened ever so slightly by bits of dark humor (such as Hank’s announcement of “I brought home a present!” to Edith when Jack stops in for a drink). Does it deserve that Sundance award? Probably not. But if We Don’t Live Here Anymore is a bit too schematic and self-conscious for its own good, it’s hardly fairy-tale tidy. By the time the credits roll, you’ll probably be eager to return to a less harrowing version of real life.
Real life has little to do with Spike Lee’s 140-minute She Hate Me, but that doesn’t make it any easier to sit through. In one of the more memorable scenes—though many will lodge themselves in your brain because of their sheer ridiculousness—an employee at a scandal-gripped pharmaceutical company challenges its smooth-talking CEO with “Are you on crack?”
A fine question, it turns out, for the director himself.
Lee couldn’t fall much farther from his last epic, the masterfully calibrated and emotionally devastating 25th Hour. She Hate Me feels like the product of an inexperienced—or perhaps really, really tired—filmmaker. Shot in 28 days and seemingly edited in one, Lee’s notebook purge takes on corporate malfeasance, deadbeat dads, alternative families, George W. Bush, and overempowered lesbians who, Gigli-style, can also have sweaty, screaming romps with the right dick.
Alternately thriller, comedy, political screed, and romance—with a bit of soft-core thrown in for good measure—the script, co-written by Lee and newcomer Michael Genet, transitions harshly from one tone and storyline to the next. The movie begins chillingly, with the corporate angle, as executive Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie) discovers dirty dealings behind his company’s freshly FDA-rejected AIDS vaccine. A call to an ethics committee gets Jack fired and his bank account frozen.
But Jack needn’t worry, because shortly an old girlfriend, Fatima (Kerry Washington), shows up at his door with her new partner, Alex (Dania Ramirez), and $10,000 in cash. They both want to get pregnant at the same time, and instead of taking chances at a sperm bank or wading through red tape to adopt, the women offer Jack money for his, um, “man milk.” And they want it the old-fashioned way.
Fatima gets pregnant, and she’s so pleased with the result that she decides to turn Jack into a business. She soon turns up, again unannounced, with a small group of her lipstick-lesbian friends, all holding bundles of benjamins and willing, after a quick look-over, to hit the sheets with the stud. And on another night, another group. Each encounter is not only mind-blowing, but also reproductively successful. (Just ignore, as Lee and Genet and Fatima’s friends do, the basics of human physiology and the unlikeliness that one man could impregnate up to six women in one night—for an eventual total of 19 mouths to feed. These take-charge lesbians, it seems, are blessed with more luck than brains.)
But just when Jack’s new enterprise seems to be the crux of the movie, the corporate scandal is jerked back into prominence again. Only now, Jack’s activities have somehow become public knowledge and are being used to assail his character as he defends his whistle-blowing on Capitol Hill. (Again, best not to analyze the out-of-nowhere use of Jack’s story in an ad campaign to re-elect Bush.)
It would be difficult to detail all of She Hate Me’s missteps—though choppy editing, laughingly unnatural dialogue, and the presence of Woody Harrelson are a few. Animated sequences in which Jack’s sperm, adorned by either his eager or weary face, swim toward each woman’s egg—yes, they’re all smiling!—are worse than missteps: They’re simply unforgivable. Lee has been quoted as insisting that She Hate Me is “not a mess” but intentionally haphazard, just like real life. Hmmm, on second thought…Nope, it’s just a mess.CP