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Begin Again Won’t Let Mark Ruffalo Play a Person

Mark Ruffalo’s great gift, besides those scruffy good looks and that prickish, hungover charisma, is capturing the essence of the guy who’s spinning toward a crash but trying to angle himself back. His greatest performance, in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, one of the best films of the 2000s, is a slow-motion skid-out, a portrait of a man who wishes he could honor the long-term promise of domesticity but can’t help but feel crushed by it — especially since he can enjoy the immediate pleasure of mastering the party and the pool table in any bar in America. Unlike most ramblin’ men in movies, Ruffalo’s Terry Prescott offered no wisdom about what life’s really about, and he was stripped of On the Road romanticism. He wasn’t searching for anything because he suspected there wasn’t a whole lot out there left to find.

More recently, that shifty restlessness has been tapped for The Avengers, where his sleepyheaded Bruce Banner also barely holds it together. Instead of hitting the road when life gets too tough, Banner’s going to punch the world — it’s the fantasy of the go-nowhere dude he captured so adeptly in Lonergan’s film, fight or flight blown up into smash or dash.

Begin Again, like several of Ruffalo’s more lackluster pictures, improves if you pretend his character is actually Prescott or Banner a couple years later, that this unsteady hunk might get fed up and either catch or throw a bus out of town. No such luck, unfortunately. Ruffalo stars as one of those movie guys who has it all but loses it in the first 15 minutes so that he can learn the kind of lessons Terry Prescott would laugh at. He gets fired, he’s separated from his wife, his daughter won’t talk to him, he sleeps on a grubby mattress in the Village, and his vintage Jaguar does what vintage Jaguars do: It craps out, giving him the chance to pound the wheel and collapse in an effective (but familiar) static shot.

Ruffalo plays Dan, the founder of a once-pioneering record label now scraping along in the internet age. He’s sold his interest and stayed on as an A&R rep, but he can’t score a hit. Once his truth-telling boorishness gets him canned, he winds up drunk at a Village open mic night, where he’s shaken with a this-is-what-it’s-all-about revelation: a plaintive ditty sung by Gretta (Keira Knightley) to a crowd not paying attention. The scene is writer-director John Carney’s strongest, or at least his most daring. As Knightley strums into the void, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, Ruffalo’s Dan imagines the drums kicking in and a string section sawing away, all of which we actually see, the sticks and bows working themselves without human hands. That his fantasy arrangement is hopelessly overwrought doesn’t kill the moment. Here’s a desperate man, dreaming big, and Ruffalo and the movie both sell it — for a scene.

From there, despite sturdy performances, Carney’s film never again connects to such urgent human feeling. That might not be a surprise, considering this is a movie about a down-on-his-luck millionaire willing to bet that Keira Knightley might be a star. Since he’s so obviously right, and since he’s not risking much at all, the story collapses into a curiously tension-free New York musical. All that prickly inner conflict Ruffalo is so adept at suggesting? Cheery Begin Again wants none of it, offering instead lots of scenes of two characters we don’t believe could ever exist arguing about authenticity in pop music. Dan’s old label isn’t interested in signing her, and Knightley’s character is too principled to sell out or stop cuffing her pants so high they look like culottes, so she and Dan hit on a plan just crazy enough to work in montage: record an album live outside in the city, each song captured in alleys, on rooftops, or — seriously? — the platform of the Wall Street subway station.

Dedicating themselves to her art solves all their problems, of course. Knightley plays Gretta, a songwriter from England who came to the States with her suddenly successful boyfriend (Adam Levine), a John Mayer type who sings ghastly falsetto pop and, as you might expect, proves no match for the temptations of fame. Carney tries to deepen the characterization some, but the boyfriend’s obviously a cad, which is emblematic of the problem with the movie as a whole: Everything works out exactly the way it seems it will, with only one exception. At times, Begin Again seems to be nudging Dan and Gretta into a romance, and since they’re two gorgeous people who make terrible decisions it wouldn’t be hard to believe, even if the performers don’t spark against each other. (Knightley’s lines never seem to come to her; they feel memorized.) As with his superior Once, Carney admirably resists that impulse — Dan’s estranged wife is played by Catherine Keener, for God’s sake. Who could possibly root for him to find new love?

The musical performances are pleasant, the songs all heartfelt chamber pop of the Aimee Mann or Sam Phillips variety, but without the idiosyncratic genius that might suggest. That goes for the characters Knightley and Ruffalo play, too. They’re pretty, and they have the occasional interesting exchange about the soullessness of the music biz, but you’d never mistake them for the real thing, actual people in the actual world. At least you can imagine he sneaks off to smash sometimes.

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Thanks for Sharing: Forbidden Fruit Has Never Seemed So Poisonous

Forbidden fruit has never seemed so poisonous than in Thanks for Sharing, a remarkably sensitive and surprisingly romantic ensemble drama about sex addiction. A winsome mix of funny, harrowing, and smart, it’s most commendable for making characters who are addicted to bad behavior—and who refuse to blame themselves for it—somehow exceedingly sympathetic.

First-time director Stuart Blumberg, the screenwriter of The Kids Are All Right, renders an incisive and humanizing portrait of addiction, as well as its attendant issues of self-restraint, self-esteem, and self-destruction. The daily struggle to “quit [the proverbial] crack while the pipe’s attached to your body” is dramatized by three men, played by Mark Ruffalo, Josh Gad, and Tim Robbins, who occupy various stages of sexual compulsion and control.

In The Avengers, Ruffalo’s baggy eyes and look of perpetual unease were perfectly exploited to illustrate the human cost of being the rage-aholic Bruce Banner. They serve a similar purpose here; Ruffalo’s elegantly monkish bachelor Adam never stops “working” to resist temptation. He follows the Sex Anon rules to the letter: The ban on TVs and laptops means he has hotel staff remove the flat screen from his room on work trips, and the prohibition against sex outside of a relationship, including masturbation, means he hasn’t come in five years. With his asymmetrical eyes and grimacing smiles, Ruffalo clinches that last detail.

Entropy arrives in the form of Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), a love interest Adam meets at an insect barbecue. (Is that what the rich and beautiful are up to these days?) To keep her around, he breaks his first Sex Anon rule: He doesn’t disclose his “condition.” As longtime singles who think they’re too smart to be disappointed again, they make for a compellingly damaged couple.

Paltrow can generate sparks with pretty much anyone, but her character’s hesitant courtship with Adam is captivating because Phoebe is the rare female romantic lead allowed to have a personality. She’s as fun as she is eager to show off, and all the more charming for it. Around Adam, she’s a bird of prey: gimlet-eyed, aggressively athletic, ready to swoop in at the first sign of weakness. But he likes it, and she’s not too rough with him. As a breast-cancer survivor, Phoebe is briskly breezy during their first sexual encounter: “Yes, my tits are fake. That’s what happens when your real ones try to kill you.” (After five years, he is merely brisk.)

But love won’t conquer addiction. After he’s forced to admit his compulsion, Adam reveals why he’s reluctant to bed her: His former dependence has so thoroughly divorced sex from affection, and so robustly chained it to shame, that his body and mind can’t work together anymore. And yet, the couple are optimistic that better days will come. Their connection offers the kind of hope that makes addicts’ never-ending battles against themselves seem worth fighting.

Despite his own struggles with “sobriety,” Adam takes on sponsorship duties to initiate Neil (Gad) into the Sex Anon brotherhood. Court-ordered into the group after rubbing against a woman on the subway, Neil doesn’t hit bottom until he’s fired for aiming an upskirt camera at his boss.

Neil strikes up a friendship—or rather, is struck a friendship with—another newbie, one of the few women at S.A. The film flirts with that old joke about sex addicts finding partners at the meetings, but brassy Dede (the singer Pink, credited as Alecia Moore) is too twitchy with self-loathing to let herself be seduced by Neil.

Neil’s initial refusal to take the tenets of Sex Anon seriously—and his baldly predatory behavior toward women—makes him the hardest to like. It’s frustrating, then, that the script handles the character with kid gloves by giving him the most triumphant storyline and shifting the blame for his assaultive activities on an overbearing Jewish mother (Carol Kane). In redeeming Neil, Blumberg simply surrenders the character to Gad’s considerable charisma.

On the other side of the experience spectrum lies Mike (Robbins), a gregarious, silver-haired papa bear with an aged collection of proverbs and a 15-year sobriety chip. But as his drug-addict son (Patrick Fugit) loves to point out, the Mike-knows-best routine is an act. Lying in wait is a violent, unforgiving son of a bitch who cares more about his S.A. fraternity than his family. His ugliest self emerges when he’s self-righteously condescending toward other addicts, like his son, who are determined to kick their habit on their own.

Such lived-in details can also feel like insular concerns. But if there are scenes in Thanks for Sharing that wouldn’t feel out of place in a PSA for Sex Anon meetings, they’re also believable as snippets of real conversations. And those moments help build a world that’s not a microcosm of ours, but of others’. Ultimately, Blumberg’s film is a plea for empathy for people with problems that aren’t particularly relatable, but in need of consideration all the same. It’s a worthwhile plea in a small gem of a movie.

 

 

 

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Mark Ruffalo’s Directorial Debut, Sympathy for Delicious Needs More Magic, Less Magic DJ

An urban parable in the underlit indie tradition, Sympathy for Delicious treats sketchy, moribund storytelling as divine inspiration. First-time director Mark Ruffalo has assembled an exceptional cast—Juliette Lewis, Orlando Bloom, Laura Linney, um, Mark Ruffalo—to surround writer and star Christopher Thornton, but a script that favors incident over story and direction that crowds scenes instead of letting them breathe make for curiously rough going. Former hipster DJ Dean O’Dwyer (Thornton) is a paraplegic who frequents the skids of Los Angeles, hoping, along with everyone under the jurisdiction of street priest Father Roselli (Ruffalo), to be saved. Dean is prickly and obscure, a Greenberg with actual problems. But in this L.A., hurt people heal people, and soon Father Roselli is pimping out Dean’s magical, health-restoring hands—a neat trick discovered by accident, they help everyone but Dean—to fill the church coffer. Disillusioned, Dean joins a band fronted by Bloom in slinky, sexy Jesus mode, and helps turn the band’s club sets into revival meetings, with a fame-hungry healer as the central attraction. Without Lewis, who pockets the few scenes she’s in with her absurd, exotic-bird dignity and Quaalude drone, not even “Delicious D” can save the film from its anti-climactic moral reckoning.

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Sizzling Blind Gossip Items for Days!

Men are the worst. In The Kids Are All Right, a lesbian couple finds that their old anonymous sperm donor has stumbled back into their lives, which prompts one of them to tell him, “I need your observations like I need a dick in my ass!” while the other decides she’d love the observations and the appendage.

The result is the kind of trouble that could have made for a glorified sitcom, but this being a seriously made dramedy, with savvy performances by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as “Pony” and “Chicken” and Mark Ruffalo as the jazzy jizzpot, it becomes a stimulating character study, not to mention Bening’s second cinematic endorsement of family this year. (See J. Hoberman’s review of The Kids Are All Right here.)

(By the way, you might even see an echo of her real-life clan. In Kids, Bening’s daughter screeches, “I’m 18 years old!” as she demands the right to make adult decisions for herself—shades of Bening’s born daughter, Kathlyn, the 18-year-old who’s defiantly living as Steve and report-edly transitioning?)

Anyway, at a Rouge Tomate luncheon for the film last week, director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko told me she never had to jump in during filming and tell Bening and Moore stuff like, “A lesbian would never do that!” “That was the amazing thing,” she said. “They’re just really great actors who went beyond the gender identity thing and became three-dimensional people that happened to be lesbians.” (See also Ella Taylor’s interview with Cholodenko here.)

In life, Cholodenko happens to have a four-year-old son, so I jokingly asked if she knows who the father is. “No!” she replied, sincerely. “It was an anonymous sperm donor. The film came about because I started posing my own personal questions like, ‘What’s this gonna be like in 18 years?’ ” This has to be one of the very rare occurrences where sperm contributed to the making of an arthouse classic.

“The couple in the film is like any other couple,” the ever-game Ruffalo told me at the same event. “They’re like me and my wife. I’ve seen it three times, and, quickly into the movie, the novelty of lesbian marriage with the teenage kids and the sperm donor dad melts away, and the audience is laughing because they’re seeing their own families up there.”

Is Ruffalo all right with becoming the face of seed givers for all time? “I’m gonna be the poster boy for sperm donors,” he said, going along with this gambit. “But I don’t know if I’m an example of the kind of sperm you want.” “I’m a gay male,” I cracked. “I want any sperm.” “We’ll let that fall flat,” he generously said, smiling, as I crawled away.

“All couples must be boy-girl” is a line from the 1978 movie Grease, though John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John went beyond the gender identity thing and became three-dimensional people who happened to be heteros. In the disillusioned 1970s, Grease provided a candy-colored, escapist throwback to the far simpler 1950s, the musical allowing the Watergate/Vietnam generation to check their tortured minds at the door and just smile a lot. So it makes perfect sense that in the even more desperate Teens, we’re going back to Grease‘s ’70s view of the ’50s, a double dose of nostalgia to distract from oil spills and Dow plummets.

And there’s a very now twist being added; in this age of social-networking fame for every human on earth, it’s being shown in a sing-along version, in which you’re the star. Last week, I saw Grease Sing-a-Long, which has the lyrics, along with giddy animation effects, guiding you through the numbers, as well as a chorus of voices added to the soundtrack. (That actually made me want to sing less; it felt like the singing-along was already taken care of. But I soared nonetheless on “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” and especially “Greased Lightning.”)

Didi Conn, who played the beauty-school dropout Frenchie, was there to egg the crowd on and explain that it’s a movie about “your first love, your first car, your first heartbreak.” Privately, I asked Conn for her first Grease memories, and she said, “The first things that come to mind are John Travolta’s lips. And looking at the cleft in his chin. Then again, there were Frankie Avalon‘s lips, too. I was a little horny in those days!” Did she even get hot for Eve Arden? “Don’t start a whole thing!” she said, laughing. All couples must be boy-girl.

At Dixon Place’s HOT! Festival of Queer Performance and Culture, ’50s nostalgia came with drag and interracial twists as the Tweed company redid Picnic, the simmering tale of small-town frustration, and made it into the very funny Pic-up! A Summer Romance. In this version, the pretty sister licks whipped cream off the goony sister’s arm, the black drifter mounts people from behind, and he and his old buddy are much chummier than anyone in Grease (onscreen, that is).

Fourteen Blind Items and Some Rhetorical Questions
But enough with overt displays of sperm donation in small towns. Let’s go for the hidden, seamy, big-city stuff, while leaving out the names, to make it extra hideous.

And so: Which fashion publicist texted that gay club regular: “What about our sexy lunch date Friday? Will you be the dessert at my apartment after lunch? Hahaha”? When the sex relationship didn’t work out, which same flack texted the guy epithets involving words like “kike” and “ugly, pencil dick”? Isn’t this even worse than you’d expect from a fashion publicist?

Which departed gay party promoter poignantly enough owed tons of gay rent money when he died? Which composer doesn’t bathe or change clothes much and generally smells like month-old fish? (People who’ve put him up for weekends have noted that—but they’re still honored to have him, mind you.) Which ex-supermodel once threw a pair of scissors at her hairdresser because she didn’t like her ‘do? (She wisely handed him some settlement cash on the spot to avoid any judicial vengeance.)

Which old-time star has emerged as a big lesbian in her twilight years, and no one’s all that surprised? Which monthly magazine that owes a major contributor $30,000 just nobly sent him a check for $500, acting like that pretty much settles it? Which superstar’s son is now a blowsy-looking crystal addict, sadly enough?

Which composernot the one who smells—nixed an all-skating finale to his latest revival? (For the revival before that, he vetoed a big geisha number, even after all the hugely expensive costumes were made. I’m not saying he was wrong, though.) Which Tony winner has a lot of cynics speculating that she was coked out of her mind judging from her behavior all season, though there’s no hard evidence of that? Which smart person who worked on the last Tony telecast is running around blabbing about how horrible Lea Michele was in her performance?

Which hot mess was going to have reality show cameras following one of her recent creative endeavors, but she must have realized they were setting her up to fail, so she didn’t sign? Which stars are more smacked out on heroin than Janis Joplin ever was, and the studio is getting a little worried? Which playwright/screenwriter spends most of his time bitching out the Hollywood system and how it done him wrong? Might he have a point? Can newspapers please stop writing articles about the sudden return of the club kid aesthetic? (It’s been going on for four whole years, thank you!) Why are men such pigs? Please tell me, oh Pony and Chicken.

musto@villagevoice.com

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What Doesn’t Kill You

Cuddly recidivism marked Mark Ruffalo’s first attention-getting role in You Can Count on Me, squirming within family ties and into our hearts. In the equally ill-titled What Doesn’t Kill You, he’s a backsliding Southie hood, passing his wife and angelic kids on the way out to petty shakedowns. Like his desperately zealous partner, Paulie (Ethan Hawke), Brian (Ruffalo) has outgrown his life, but has nothing to replace it. Ex-tough Brian Goodman, who plays their local crime boss, directs his own screenplayed memories, double-timing through the duo’s gambits and their prison stint into Brian’s recovery trudge from coke. For a “before” stage of rhino-like oblivion, Ruffalo draws on his knack for summoning an incongruous brooding bulk from within, and the result almost sucks the air from Hawke’s rangy routine of nerves and sinewy smiles. In the straight-and-narrow struggle post-clink, Ruffalo lacks rapport with Amanda Peet as the long-suffering wife. (Donnie Wahlberg, who co-wrote the script, also drives by now and again as an on-to-you sergeant.) Goodman’s movie tends to limp along, but he naturally gets Boston in winter and steers clear of Gone Baby Gone grotesques: An opening helicopter shot centers on a resolutely boring apartment building.

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Emotional Wreck

I gave up after about 100 pages of John Burnham Schwartz’s 1998 novel Reservation Road, a typically overwritten and contrived slice of mass-market literary pablum that hopscotches between the points-of-view of three people—the grieving mom, the grieving dad, and the perpetrator— involved in the hit-and-run death of a 10-year-old boy on the titular stretch of Connecticut blacktop. I wanted to give up on director Terry George’s new film version even sooner, pretty much right from its picture-postcard opening images of sailboats on late-summer water, Red Sox fans cheering the team through the 2004 post-season, and smiling suburban families enjoying a children’s concert in an inviting park. These people—call them “ordinary,” if you will—are much too happy for something awful not to befall them before the first reel is over; and George, who previously directed the equally crude and obvious Hotel Rwanda, is far too clumsy a filmmaker to disguise his true intentions.

Yes, Reservation Road is one of those movies where the characters suffer early and often. This starts the moment that lawyer Dwight Arno (Mark
Ruffalo) plows his SUV into the body of Josh Learner (Sean Curley) outside of a roadside gas station while the boy’s parents, college professor Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) and wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly), look on in helpless horror. Dwight, who’s carrying a roof-rack worth of emotional baggage—contentious ex (Mira Sorvino), 11-year-old son (Eddie Alderson) caught in the crossfire—stops for a second, then thinks better (or worse) of it and speeds off into the darkness. By the time, a few scenes later, that Ethan unknowingly hires Dwight to be his advocate in the ongoing search for his son’s killer, you may rightly start to wonder if perhaps John Burnham Schwartz (who shares screenplay credit with George) is not just a flowery nom de plume for one Paul Haggis.

Will Dwight’s guilty conscience speak up before Ethan figures things out and goes all Jodie Foster on him? While we await the answer with something less than breathless anticipation, the bathos piles up like autumn leaves. Scenes invariably begin or end with someone crying, blaming himself/herself for events beyond his/her control (Ethan for his son’s death, Grace for Ethan’s limp dick in the sack), and other assorted hysterics. Still to come: the obligatory Googling of victim-support groups; the gruff indifference of the police; the mildewed bromides about how violence begets violence; and, in one particularly rancid attempt at post-9/11 “relevance,” a sequence in which Ethan takes to stalking the Saudi diplomat he is convinced was behind the wheel of that phantom SUV.

The actors—especially Ruffalo, who has a unique aptitude for playing wounded, inarticulate American males—soldier through as best they can. What, though, is an actress as resourceful as Connelly meant to make of a part that asks her to bite her lip bravely before finally exploding in an aria of “My son is dead! I’m trying to figure out how to live!” Reservation Road itself may twist and turn into the New England night, but emotionally and dramatically, the movie that bears its name is a dead end. At least, for what it’s worth, the Sox still win the Series.

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‘Imagine Me & You’

British rom-coms live and die by the charm of their patter. And though this lesbian-themed entry in the Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral category neatly accomplishes the genre’s other requirement, the ability to double as travelogue, its players are availed of precious little wit. The plot, which unfolds in dappled and dewy Primrose Hill, finds angelic Rachel (Piper Perabo) questioning her “perfect” marriage to successful broker Heck (Matthew Goode, the British Mark Ruffalo) after she locks desirous eyes with their hot wedding florist Luce (Lena Headey). To move things along, Heck’s cad pal (Darren Boyd) falls for Luce, occasioning more social contact with Rachel. The redundant meet-cute is extended further by dull jags involving Rachel’s precocious 8-year-old sister, her parents’ strained marriage, and Luce’s mother’s dating issues. Posh bores all (what passes for humor are things like stuffy mum exclaiming, “sweet shit in a bucket!”), the characters simply run their tedious mouths until the two women finally consummate their flirtation with a tasteful smooch in the flower shop stockroom. These being moral times for celluloid gays, there is no consideration of an affair. It’s got to be all or nothing.

Straining to adhere to treacly formula—in which any personal fallout surrounding love’s madness is milked for jokes then tidily resolved —the film creates a bizarro world where the only obstacles to the smooth transition from affluent hetero wifehood to affluent girl-girl bliss are a few stunned parental reactions that instantly melt into full-fledged support. Even mild-mannered Heck just basically says “heck.” But then, what does he care? He’s rich as folk. The goal here is to ensconce us in luxury as we imagine what our two foxes must be imagining doing to each other. But not only is there not enough panting to bunch any panties, this polite romp could use more of that other L-word: laughs. And it doesn’t help that the final song, “Happy Together,” to which the title alludes, only reminds anyone who saw Adaptation of a movie that had lots of ’em.

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‘Rumor Has It’

Rumor had it this was gonna be a stinker, and it is. The premise itself, which has been criticized for its weirdly incestuous overtones, isn’t even the problem. In fact, it could’ve been quite funny in the right hands: A young woman discovers a buried secret that her mom and grandmother were the women whose roundelay with the same young man inspired The Graduate, then encounters the graying real-life Benjamin Braddock herself, whereupon moral mayhem again ensues. But just as with the dismal Alex & Emma, Rob Reiner is tapped out when it comes to seducing us.

Jennifer Aniston is Sarah, a converted New York liberal (her antipathy toward tennis signals leftward leanings) returning to conservative Pasadena for her sister’s wedding, who confides in her marriage-minded boyfriend, Jeff (the great Mark Ruffalo, thankless everydude extraordinaire), that she wonders whether she’s really her father’s child. Her reasoning: They have different driving styles (her fast, him slow), don’t agree on politics, and don’t look the same (it’s true, the guy totally looks like an actor hired to play her dad). Since our wily screenwriters have conveniently killed off Sarah’s mom (the Katharine Ross antecedent), there’s nobody to clear things up when her boozy grandma (Shirley MacLaine) spills the Graduate beans and Sarah sets out in search of her real paternity.

Instead of giving us an aging doofus Braddock, Reiner invests in plastics. Our Braddock alter ego is now a computer mogul whose dullness is mitigated by the fact that he chills with Bill Clinton, flies a plane, and happens to be dateless for a gala ball the night after he first beds Sarah. Oh wait, sorry. He’s not her dad, OK? He’s sterile, as we learn—and then must question in a renewed rush of incest-panic before relearning. So that’s settled, and it’s off to wine country. Alas, this fairy-tale affair, which has now united three generations of women and one rich stiff, is short-lived. After a heart-to-heart with her real dad, Sarah resigns to marry reliable Jeff. Maybe it’s the terrible lighting, but Friend-out-of-water Aniston spends most of this flick looking like she needs Dustin Hoffman to bang on the glass and get her out of this mess.

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‘Just Like Heaven’

Good news for horror fans: Six years after Haley Joel Osment first saw dead people, the gimmick is finally safe for romantic comedy. Surely the end of the cycle is nigh. Reese Witherspoon stars as overworked internist Elizabeth, the latest movie character who can’t quite figure out if she’s dead or alive, after a 26-hour stretch at the hospital leads to a possibly fatal car accident. When lost and lonely David (a bewildered Mark Ruffalo) moves into Elizabeth’s San Francisco apartment, he soon discovers that he’ll have to share its spacious accommodations with a peculiarly energetic ghost playing the role of mother, AA counselor, and overall killjoy. Elizabeth, of course, is only visible to David, setting up lots of confused third-party reaction shots, awkward physical comedy, and repeated jokes about “seeing someone.” Witherspoon’s oft charming perkiness is merely patronizing here, but mid-’90s MTV staple Donal Logue steals every scene he’s in as an ethically challenged therapist. Fraught with anxiety about the spiritual consequences of overwork, Just Like Heaven feels contemporary enough, but the movie’s level of imagination is best captured by its painfully literal-minded soundtrack, which includes such topical material as “Just My Imagination,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and the theme from Ghostbusters.

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Academic Affairs: Mutual Adultery in a Quiet College Town

John Curran’s impressive 1998 debut, Praise, chronicled the love affair between a pair of Australian slackers living day-to-day in a state of dazed, drug-enhanced marginality. For his follow-up, the American-born director has returned home for an equally gripping and no less well acted character-driven romance.

Adroitly adapted by Larry Gross from a pair of short stories by Andre Dubus, We Don’t Live Here Anymore concerns the complementary adultery involving two thirtysomething academic couples, Jack and Terry Linden (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) and Hank and Edith Evans (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts). They’re all socializing in the first scene—it takes a moment to sort out who’s with whom and a bit longer to calculate what might have happened when Jack and Edith, who are already embarking on an affair, skipped out to get more beer, leaving Terry and Hank to their own devices.

It’s summertime and theirs are idyllic lives of noisy desperation. Terry drinks too much and berates Jack; Hank suffers writer’s block and rejection—in one scene he burns his unpublishable manuscript on the backyard barbecue grill for an audience of neighborhood kids. (Then he writes a poem about it, which he sells to The New Yorker.) Meanwhile, feckless Jack rides a kid’s bicycle to meet tightly wound Edith in the woods on a Saturday afternoon—their tryst is an opportunity for them both to sneak cigarettes as well as sex. Is the supremely self-absorbed Hank oblivious to the affair or is he encouraging it? Does Jack gloat when Terry tells him that Hank made a pass at her?

Everything comes to a head amid the celestial spaciness of Hank’s publication party. (Suddenly, the emptied-out college town seems full of people.) Curran is resolutely focused on his characters’ mood swings and deceptions; he’s largely nonjudgmental, although at one point, the script threatens to unleash the most punitive of clichés and sacrifice a child. (As a Dubus story provided the basis for In the Bedroom, it seems possible.) But the filmmakers have another agenda—and as it turns out, so do Edith and Hank.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore is spellbinding stuff—in part because of its vivid characterizations. But while Dern’s gaunt, smoldering intensity is oddly complemented by Krause’s opaque diffidence, Ruffalo and Watts are the stellar couple. Ruffalo’s Jack—at once furtive, funny, hapless yet smarmy—is his most achieved and abject character to date, while Watts’s Edith projects a fragility that might be made of tempered steel. The fact is, Naomi Watts is a tremendous movie actress. She need only sidle on camera and glance over the terrain to claim the scene. What’s her secret? Like the great Isabelle Huppert, Watts doesn’t radiate feelings so much as she absorbs them.