This low-key drama confronts infidelity and marital discontent through the private dramas of two couples. Both Hank (Peter Krause) and Jack (Mark Ruffalo) are teachers at a community college, Hank an aspiring novelist who treats infidelity as a necessary adjunct to his life. The most sophisticated of the four, he embraces the romance of the writer's ancillary angst, women serving as both inspiration and gratification. His wife, Edith (Naomi Watts) is aware of Hank's indiscretions, increasingly bitter and disappointed with her marriage, but unwilling to act.
Edith and Hank are good friends with Jack and Terry (Laura Dern), socializing frequently, a source of titillation for a clandestine affair between Jack and Edith. Edith embarks on the affair partly from spite and partly from devastating loneliness, but Jack is not as cavalier as his fellow adulterer, blindsided by daydreams of his lover and irritated by Terry's obvious flaws. As Jack, Ruffalo is sensitive and thoughtful, playing the formerly faithful husband with subtle grace, sinking into a moral quagmire that renders him unable to stop the affair or leave his wife. This man enjoys the comforts of marriage, children and the routine, almost undone by the risks he is taking to meet Edith.
The jewel of the movie is Laura Dern as Terry, her performance flawless as the confused, wounded wife who senses her husband's betrayal but won't confront him, crippled by her own inadequacies. Dern and Ruffalo move in perfect counterpoint, circling their marriage, challenged in ways they never anticipated. He obsesses over the other woman and adores his children, but there is more emotional depth here than may appear. This is a man who cannot abide his own betrayal. Edith realizes that eventually the affair will be exposed, almost anticipating the ensuing confrontation.
Under the direction of John Curran, the insightful script is riveting in the hands of these actors, the subdued atmosphere belying a tight undercurrent of tension, a sense that something terrible might happen to these people, especially Jack and Terry. The director manipulates this tension to pull the characters back and forth, their interactions emotionally charged, until finally the truth of each marriage is revealed. This movie has been compared to The Ice Storm, but I never made any such connection when watching the film. The Ice Storm is cynical, a study in carelessness, but this film carries the weight of truth, how easily marriage gets side-tracked by tedium, how simple it is to forget the cost of infidelity.
Krause plays an egocentric, insensitive cad, Watts the long-suffering wife driven to her own solutions, but Dern is the heart of the movie, waxing hot and cold, caught up in her own deceptions, bruised by Jack's betrayal, both of them torn between need and responsibility. The couple is faced with the consequences of their actions, where nothing happens in a vacuum and the children pay the price of their parent's self-indulgence. There are no easy answers, no great epiphany, only hard truths and the concessions demanded by modern marriage. Luan Gaines.
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