Two sets of conjugal friends--Jack (Mark Ruffalo) and Terry (Laura Dern), Hank (Peter Krause) and Edith (Naomi Watts)--find themselves trapped in forlorn marriages and engaged in cross-couple infidelity. Aptly played by the suddenly ubiquitous Ruffalo, Jack is the primary protagonist, a smarmy, pathetic character whose moral hypocrisy evokes Ben Stiller's lecherous loser from Your Friends and Neighbors. Watts and Dern offer divergent, yet equally affecting performances.
The film combines the marital angst of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe with the hypnotic melancholy of The Ice Storm. All four friends don't know, yet know all too well, what's going on. Still, they persist with their fatalistic affairs--"I wonder how we'll get caught," muses Edith. What pulsates in the background is an appeal to a kind of sexual laissez faire--it's not adultery itself, but the stigma and emotional isolation linked with it (and a loveless relationship) that destroys lives. Larry Gross' shrewd script buttresses this debatable concept, along with some conspicuous plotting by director John Curran--e.g., the audience is saturated with the characters' misery but only gets glimpses of their illicit sex, with the lone sustained scene coming only after the truth has been revealed. In the end, only that truth produces freedom and, ergo, happiness.