The Story of Us (1999) **1/4
Directed by Rob Reiner. Written by Alan Zweibel & Jessie Nelson. Photography, Michael Chapman. Editing, Robert Leighton. Production design, Lilly Kilvert. Music, Eric Clapton and Marc Shaiman. Cast: Bruce Willis (Ben Jordan), Michelle Pfeiffer (Katie Jordan), Colleen Rennison (Erin at 10), Jake Sandvig (Josh at 12), Tim Matheson (Marty), Rob Reiner (Stan), Julie Hagerty (Liza) and Rita Wilson (Rachel). Produced by Reiner, Nelson & Zweibel. A Universal release. 92 minutes. R (strong sexual language).
1. Why I Saw This Movie. The able and smart main film-critic of this country's best newspaper, unlike many other reviewers, is especially kind to movies. Yet this person's write-up on The Story of Us was so unusually scathing that it piqued my curiosity.
2. Whom I Saw It With. A substantial audience. They seemed to like it, laughed often. I did too, but much less.
3. What Does The Film Remind Me Of. The same director's When Harry Met Sally (1989) --in reverse. Call it When Ben and Katie Separated After 15 Years of Marriage and Two Kids. But this wouldn't fit the marquee.
4. What I Learned About Bruce Willis. He is left-handed, bald and uses terrible hairpieces. He plays a writer, but I didn't figure out precisely what he writes. More importantly, he can not only do action flicks but he can also act.
5. What I Found Out About Michelle Pfeiffer. She is 42, lovely as ever, still at the very top of the list of appealing stars. Her eyes continue to fascinate me by their beauty and the oddity than they are always ever so slightly bloodshot. This reinforces their power to suggest sorrow. Here Pfeiffer is a professional crossword-puzzle editor, undoubtedly a most instructive job.
6. How Her Profession Is Worked Into The Movie. Just a little. On the other hand, as a working Mom she has a normally frantic life.
7. What Genre The Film Belongs To. The romantic comedy. (You know even before you get your ticket that there will be a happy ending. It takes the form of a long speech by Pfeiffer, is phony, and too artificially emotional for the usually cool Michelle). The real sub-genre is Comedies of Remarriage. Couples split for whatever reason but get back together. Some great old movies in this group are My Girl Friday, My Favorite Wife, the Hitchcock rarity (not a thriller) Mr and Mrs Smith.
The couple hide their ever-increasing differences, gripes and other Bad Things from their teen-age children so as not to upset them. Which is ridiculous as the presumably intelligent kids ought (but have not?) seen or sensed their parents' problems. The separation starts after the parents have taken the children to summer camp. Willis moves to an hotel, then an apartment. Pfeiffer enters, by chance, into a relationship with a divorced family acquaintance. Honor is Safe. Supposedly nothing happenes between this new twosome, beyond cooking beautiful Thai food together. Come on!
A familiar yet realistic touch. When the man finds out that the couple has split up, he expresses his strong sorrow then makes an immediate pass. But other sections are over the top: a sequence of Willis and a close friend (played by director Rob Reiner) philosophizing about couples is forced; a sequence where Willis, Reiner and the latter's wife (Rita Wilson) go to a posh restaurant and Willis starts shouting out his problems is ham-fisted; a scene where Willis tells pal Dave (Paul Reiser, unusually sufferable) that he wants to write a book about his (Willis's) grandmother is gauchely worked into the story.
The story is related in bits, with a profusion of flashbacks, flashforwards, flashsideways, and with the spouses addressing directly the camera. One of the flahsbacks, a trip to romantic Venice (in Italy, not California) in order to rekindle the old passion and make them an "us" again, is rather amusing Especially when they meet an older couple of obnoxious, loud and jocular tourists from Cleveland. But the return home is artificially made into an instant fight. There are, too, three flashbacks to shrinks/marriage counselors, all three forced.
The flick travels in time non-stop. It uses sitcom humor with sitcom-ish fragmented action, the only difference being the uncensored language. There is brio, albeit overdone, in a raucous restaurant sequence in which Pfeiffer and her best friends Julie Hagerty and Rita Wilson discuss husbands and sex. This is mechanically paralleled (though also lively ) in a restaurant meeting of Willis, Reiser and Reiner who discuss wives and women. Both have some humor, plus a lot of four-letter and sexual anatomy descriptions by Rita Wilson.
If all this sounds like a sloppy script, it is. Curiously, however, the picture does not feel irritating, dull or overlong -- at least not until about minute 80 (out of 92).