Release Date:  August 13, 2004 (LA/NY)
Rating:  R (for sexual content and language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time: 1 hr. 44 min.
Director:  John Curran
Actors:  Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Peter Krause, Naomi Watts

Like the other films made from Dubus’ work, “In the Bedroom” and “House of Sand and Fog,” this one left me jonesin’ for a Prozac smoothie. Thank goodness they didn’t all come out at once; if I had watched all three back-to-back, I think I’d be in the psych ward by now.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying Dubus’ movies are depressing. I’m saying that they’re shoot-me-right-now-and-put-me-out-of-my-misery depressing.

In a small northeast town, two struggling couples are best friends. The men, Hank (Peter Krause) and Jack (Mark Ruffalo), are both professors of literature at a local university. The women, Edith (Naomi Watts) and Terry (Laura Dern) are housewives and mothers. Hank seems incapable of emotion, preferring instead to focus on his as-yet unpublished writing. Casual affairs, he tells Jack, keep his marriage together. Unbeknownst to Hank, Jack is following his friend’s advice to engage in marital infidelity; he’s sleeping with Edith.

Meanwhile, Hank has his eye on Terry, who drinks and can’t focus enough to clean her house or take care of her kids, something that serves as justification for Jack’s infidelity. When Hank and Terry finally do make love, the passive-aggressive Jack is delighted and wants to know all the details, but turns surly as soon as he hears them. Jack loves Edith, but he also loves his kids. And, unlike Edith, who is trapped in a loveless marriage, Jack has a wife who still loves him. But is it enough to save them?

Based on two shorts stories (“We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Adultery”) by Andre Dubus, this film is a dark and sexually explicit portrayal of the roots and consequences of adultery.  The Sundance Film Festival nominated it for the Grand Jury Prize, and screenwriter Larry Gross took home the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (I guess they like f-words on that committee). Like all of Dubus’ stories, this tale is highly literary, something that tends to capture acclaim and awards without necessarily meriting either. You know the film is striving for greatness when Jack discusses Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Speaking to his class, he says, “Maybe Tolstoy didn’t want to write some big uplifting story … maybe he just wanted to show us what it was like to die.”

No, Professor Jack. I hate to tell you, but your existential take on the motivations of Leo Tolstoy, who was a devout Christian, may be just a little too influenced by the liberalism that’s running rampant on college campuses today. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is not about death, but life (which is why the title character does not die).  The novel illustrates with poetic clarity just how lonely and meaningless life is without the forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ. In this film, however, there is no antidote to the character’s self-destructive pursuit of happiness. People will always want what they cannot have, it seems to say, which will ultimately destroy them. Could someone please pass me a noose?

The sets are dark and dreary, although the designer attempted to make a point with stark contrasts between the two women and their homes. One is light, one is dark, but this symbolism didn’t work. This film, which was shot in the rain-soaked city of Vancouver, B.C. (otherwise known as “Hollywood North”), is all dark. Rooky John Curran’s direction, however, is solid.