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Great acting in ‘We Don’t Live Here Anymore’

Watts, Ruffalo, Dern and Krause play spouses who dabble in adultery. By John Hartl

The late Andre Dubus’ stories may not seem especially cinematic, but they’ve so far yielded two exceptional films.

Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom” (2001) transformed Dubus’ “Killings” into an unsettling tale of a couple tested by the careless killing of their young son. John Curran’s “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” which won a screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, deftly combines two Dubus novellas about infidelity: “Adultery” and the book that gives the movie its title.

Just as “In the Bedroom” inspired revelatory performances by Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” gives all four of its leading actors the opportunity to explore a fresh range of emotions. Larry Gross’ script, which lifts much of its dialogue from the novellas, has clearly challenged the cast to be honest and persuasive.

Mark Ruffalo, so often wasted since his breakthrough performance in “You Can Count on Me” (2000), delivers the movie’s biggest surprise. He jettisons much of his natural boyishness in order to play Jack, a literature professor who is having an affair with Edith (Naomi Watts), the wife of his best friend, creative-writing teacher Hank (Peter Krause).

Ruffalo can’t entirely abandon his youth (he’s far from middle-aged), but there’s a direct, weary quality to the performance that feels new. He emphasizes the contradictions in this tortured character, who still loves his kids and his wife, Terry (Laura Dern), but can’t deny that something new and vital and potentially disastrous has entered his life.

Ruffalo may be stretching here, yet you never see the effort. The same goes for Dern, who brings a heartbreaking sense of anguish to her role, and Watts, who demonstrates that Edith’s passion for Jack is compromised by her consideration of the consequences. Best-known for playing Nate on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” Krause effectively puts that showier role behind him as he embraces Hank’s accommodating nature.

While Hank and Terry suspect that something’s amiss in their marriages, their attraction to each other does not turn the movie into a simplistic tale of vengeful wife-swapping. Hank and Jack, as competitive as they are, never become macho stereotypes. There are no catfights between Terry and Edith. The movie ends on a questioning note that will frustrate some audiences, though it seems entirely in keeping with Curran’s ambiguous tone.

The director is walking a tightrope here, and there are moments when the movie threatens to turn into a 21st Century “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” Almost any element could ruin the balance and threaten self-parody; music, cinematography and sound design never go over the edge.

Curran encourages a deliberate vagueness about the story’s setting. The movie was shot in Vancouver B.C., which is evidently meant to substitute for the New England of the novellas. The audience, however, is invited to see the story as less specific, and encouraged to see it as more universally applicable.