In a screen adaptation of the Philip Roth novella The Dying Animal this highly charged sexual drama comes to the fore as its central character wraps himself around a dangerous life-changing relationship. David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is an engaging very successful professor whose personal life he closely controls--never letting commitment get in the way and keeping the women in his life at arm’s distance. Although he can go on The Charlie Rose Show and charm with the best of them his emotional needs have remained hidden to him--that is until a gorgeous young student Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz) enters his classroom and rocks his tightly monitored world. Suddenly everything he thought he knew about his own human nature and longings are thrown out the window. He becomes obsessively involved with the much younger Consuela--SO obsessive in fact that his jealousy and possessiveness take their toll and eventually drive her away. Drowning his sorrows in other personal matters he will discover that this relationship is not quite over and the woman who haunts his dreams is going to come back into his life with an urgency neither one could possibly have imagined. Kingsley an Oscar winner over a quarter of a century ago for Gandhi has perhaps his richest role since then as professor Kepesh a man overwhelmed by desire he never knew he was capable of. It’s certainly unusual and definitely refreshing to see an actor who is just hitting retirement age get such a full-bodied and sexual role. Let’s face it Kingsley is no Brad Pitt but he certainly represents a group of men who are still in the game and even just discovering their full romantic potential in the autumn of life. Of course what red blooded American male wouldn’t fall hook line and sinker for the rapturous Cruz. Her Consuela is a woman in complete charge of her being--until events out of her control bring out the vulnerability. Without revealing plot spoilers there are two distinct parts to this complicated and fascinating performance and Cruz effortlessly nails both. The supporting cast is also top notch with Patricia Clarkson a particular standout as Carolyn the professor’s long-time lover who finds her mutually convenient affair threatened for the first time. There’s also Dennis Hopper as a distinguished poet and David’s good friend; Deborah Harry as Hopper’s long-suffering wife; and Peter Sarsgaard as the prof’s distant son are all fine in the exceptionally well-cast film. Spanish director Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me) brings an intimacy and strong woman’s touch to a story that might have had a different spin if directed by a man. After all how many Hollywood films have we seen with 60 and 70 year-old male stars cast opposite much younger actresses that fail to examine the irony of those pairings? This relationship is shown warts and all in a much more emotionally complicated way than most films dare. Emphasis on Clarkson’s spurned lover also adds a nice touch and we can completely empathize with this smart sexually alive woman whose main sin is her age similarity with the man she has slept with hassle free for over 20 years. A major studio would never touch a story like this that deals with the sexual proclivities of mature adults unless it had something to do with Batman and Catwoman. We can thank Coixet’s sharply detailed work behind the camera particularly in intimate bedroom conversations and a smart adaptation by Nicholas Meyer which gets right to the heart of Roth’s ultimately heartbreaking story. Those expecting something along the raunchy lines of the aging author’s Portnoy’s Complaint will be in for a surprise with this independently made contemplative beautifully crafted and acted romantic drama. Finally a film for grown ups.
Jack and Terry (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) are an unhappy couple stifled by years of sullen barely concealed rage Jack's inertia and Terry's drinking. Their friends Hank and Edith (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts) are similarly miserable with each other which they act out through barely concealed affairs. As Jack and Edith begin their illicit tryst they instinctively seek to pair up Hank and Terry partly to make it easier for them to sneak around but mostly to alleviate their own guilt. So the two couples basically substitute one rut for another wheels spinning in the muddy morass of their own confused attempts at adulthood. Through it all their children become a sort of juvenile Greek chorus for their parents making the kinds of precocious pronouncements that are only uttered from the mouths of screenwriters.
As joyless as the movie is to sit through the acting is brilliant. Krause (Six Feet Under) tosses his nonchalance around as an impenetrable shield caring so little that he's impossible to wound. Ruffalo (Collateral) who is the most (and probably the only) human of the quartet provides the only thing approaching a moral center. And even in this company Dern manages to act circles around them. Her Terry is a definitive portrait of the party girl who finally wakes up hung over one morning only to discover she's got two kids to feed a house to clean and a husband who'd rather talk than make love. To her love means always having to admit you're desperate. So it's sad and chilling to watch her begin her affair with Hank only because in her own twisted way she thinks her husband wants her to.
Watts is still the most compulsively watchable actress working today summoning reserves of inner turmoil on cue and yet always making it look effortless. It is interesting to contrast her role here with her work in the far superior and brilliantly written 21 Grams. Both characters are deeply unhappy people trying to make sense of the cruel world. And yet 21 Grams which is much unhappier and more despondent achieves a sublime grace as each character discovers their humanity in their desperation. In this movie you just hope that at some point the four main characters will jump in an SUV that has faulty brakes.
The two men are college professors and the movie makes the most of that milieu with flirtatious students college bars and long leafy runs providing the backdrop. But most of the movie's plotting feels like its been done on graph paper. Jack and Terry make love. Cut to Hank and Edith making love. Jack talks to his daughter. Cut to Edith talking to her daughter. The rhythm of this duet becomes numbing. The movie is directed by John Curran an Australian making his first American feature. But the impetus for the story comes from screenwriter Larry Gross adapting two short stories by Andre Dubus who wrote In the Bedroom. Dubus' movie characters are all variations on the same emotionally stifled yuppie theme although In the Bedroom saved itself by turning into an old-fashioned revenge melodrama. We Don't Live Here Anymore is one of those movies and there have been oodles where the characters are so inert that the suspense if one can call it suspense is who will act first to break the circle of despair. And so the children of course are trotted out as pawns on the chessboard forcing the kings and queens to choose. I don't know which is more depressing: that this movie cliché has been used so often or that there are undoubtedly thousands of couples in the world who act exactly like this.