WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE directed by John Curran, written by Larry Gross, adapted from short stories by Andre Dubus, produced by Harvey Kahn, Jonas Goodman and Naomi Watts, with Watts, Laura Dern, Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause. 103 minutes. A Warner Independent Pictures release. Opens Friday (August 13). See review this page. For venues and times, see Movies, page 76. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
Salt Lake City - Watching Laura Dern on screen means watching her mouth. It's the most expressive kisser in the movies. In fact, it's so good that it's created its own signature moment, something fans call "The Face." In Blue Velvet, when Dern cries in horror as Kyle MacLachlan comforts Isabella Rossellini, her mouth widens and curves into a strange, toothy shape, like she's about to swallow a kidney.
It's unforgettable. But it goes beyond the mere gape of her maw. Dern's mouth is where all her emotion comes out. There's a spigot on Laura Dern that opens all the way, and it's made her into one of the most compelling actors in the movies.
David Lynch turned that emotion to baroque ends in Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart.
"David and I have always had that relationship," she says. "I kind of grew up with him. I met him at 18, and I spent several years of my life learning about getting honest as an actor and going further than you ever thought you would go."
In We Don't Live Here Anymore, Dern's portrait of a raging, complex woman is easily the most riveting thing on screen, which is saying a lot given this cast.
Her character, Terry, is married to college professor Mark Ruffalo. His colleague (Six Feet Under's Peter Krause) endures a numb marriage to Naomi Watts (see sidebar, this page). The story, adapted from Andre Dubus, follows the spreading stain of adultery between the two couples.
John Curran directs We Don't Live Here Anymore with an eye to the searching dramas of Hollywood in the 70s. It's an era Dern knows genetically.
Daughter of bad-seed icons Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd (mother and daughter scored unprecedented Oscar nominations for Rambling Rose), she's clearly inherited the intensity and freedom of that era's American film actors.
At the Sundance Film Festival, she enters the room arm in arm with Watts, who wears a fluffy white sweater and jeans. Dern, 37, sports a multicoloured suede-and-leather skirt. Solid.
"I certainly don't want to sound like an actor talking about acting," she says, trying to explain where all that screen emotion comes from, "but I was raised by actors, so I guess sometimes I do get in that habit."
In person, Dern comes across as a pulsing heart. You get the sense that anything could happen. That scene in Smooth Talk, where she stands on the other side of a screen door from Treat Williams, becoming a woman before your eyes, is a cue to the constant sense of possibility she projects. In an interview around the time of Wild At Heart, she said, "I think the scariest thing in the world is repression."
Today she says, "Yes, there's raw talent, and, yes, there's education in acting, and I have a coach and have studied for many years, and I love that, but the hardest work may just be trying to understand the complications in people.
"It gives you a bigger heart when you have empathy for the people you play, and taht inspires you to play hard people, people that are much more complicated than you might have felt safe to play years before."
In this film, Dern throws herself into some raw screaming scenes worthy of The Face. But where David Lynch might make swirling artifice of her emotion, here it practically punches through the screen as dauntingly real.
Marisa Tomei was originally set to play Dern's role, after success in another Dubus adaptation, In The Bedroom. But she chose a Broadway production of Salome with Al Pacino instead, which shuttled the project to Naomi Watts. Watts had her choice of roles, but was just wrapping work on 21 Grams.
"I just thought, 'There's no way I can do anything,'" Watts recalled at Sundance. "'I can't work right now. I just need to lock myself in a room. '"
She took the film's more interior role, leaving the fireworks to Dern.
Part of that character's turmoil arises from the fact that she's a mother in a disintegrating marriage. Dern's own parents split when she was two, and she sounds fascinated by how being a parent works on us.
"We all want to grow up fast enough that we're not passing on a pattern," she says, "but sometimes we find ourselves right in the middle of it."
Mother of a young son with alt-blues star Ben Harper, Dern is now pregnant with her second child. She's also just announced their engagement. After public ins and outs with Kyle MacLachlan, Jeff Goldblum, director Renny Harlin and Billy Bob Thornton, Dern sounds ready to put it all behind her.
"Parenthood makes you that much more aware," she says, "that you want to get grown up fast."
Naomi Watts, co-star and producer of We Don't Live Here Anymore, made a big impression on Dern. "She's one of those rare girls," she says. "I can look in her eyes and know what's going on."
Although she began 13 years ago with Thandie Newton and Nicole Kidman in Flirting, Watts had a b-list career until the double shot of Mulholland Dr. and The Ring made her a star.
Watts talked to NOW at Sundance, just before her Academy Award nomination for 21 Grams was announced.
On quick work
"I like a lot of rehearsal. On this film (We Don't Live Here Anymore) we didn't have it at all. There were some sit-down conversations, there were some conversations on the phone. The film was prepped within three weeks and shot in five. "I didn't have any time to research this role, but I don't know what you'd do to research it anyway. With 21 Grams (as a grieving woman with a coke habit), I had a lot of time, and it required a lot of research."
"I would love to dance in a movie. I can't sing for shit. But I'm dying to do more comedy. I just did one with David O. Russell ( I Heart Huckabee's , premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival). It was so stimulating and utterly thrilling every day. But I have weird taste. For the most part, the romantic comedy formulaic structure doesn't hold my interest."