Rumor Has It

Rob Reiner, who has made so many good films, seems to have lost his touch with comedy–or with any genre, for that matter. Though “Rumor Has It” is not as bad as his previous comedies, “The Story of Us” and “Alex and Emma,” it's still a disappointing film, particularly in relation to its central premise–a take on the cult movie “The Graduate”–which in theory sounds promising.

With two dissatisfying performances this season alone, as the femme fatale in the noir thriller “Derailed” and now in Reiner's comedy, it's clear that Jennifer Aniston is not made for starring roles on the big screen. Lacking charm and commanding presence, Aniston acts small, as if she's still doing an episode of “Friends.” On TV, Aniston was part of an ensemble, so her shortcomings were not as obvious as when she's the leading lady.

No matter what role she plays, Aniston turns her characters into less appealing women that they are on paper. Fortunately, in “Rumor Has it,” she gets good support from the men, Mark Ruffalo and Kevin Costner, and from Shirley MacLaine, as her sharp and youngish grandmother.

Aniston plays Sarah Huttinger, a woman who has agreed to marry her boyfriend Jeff (Ruffalo), but is terrified of going through with it. Her journalism career has stalled out at the obituary desk of the N.Y. Times (it's hard to imagine Aniston as a Times journalist). Things change, when her younger sister Annie (Mena Suvari) plunges into marriage with her tennis partner, and Sarah must return home to Pasadena to attend the wedding.

Going home means spending time with her family and thus signals trouble. For as long as Sarah can remember, she has been the black sheep, never knowing where she fits in. While she loves her father and sister, she can't relate to their contented lives of country clubs and tennis matches. The only thing that makes the trip bearable is the company of her acerbic grandmother Katharine who, after a couple of drinks, lets it slip that Sarah is not the first one in the family to get cold feet. More to the point, thirty years ago, Sarah's late mother ran off with a mysterious man just days before her wedding to Sarah's father.

Curiously, around the same time, there was a rumor about a young woman who ran off with a young man who had been seduced by the woman's mother, creating a huge scandal in Pasadena. The rumor became a book, and the book became a film. Now, in the midst of her sister's wedding, Sarah is frantically searching for a copy of 1967 film “The Graduate,” suspecting that her family may have been the inspiration for the story, with Katharine as the older woman and Sarah's own mother as the young man's true love.

Which leaves one question: Who is the young man Since the rumor may hold the key to her true identity, Sarah puts Jeff on a plane to New York and detours to San Francisco to look up her mother's classmate, Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner), a famous Internet billionaire. What she finds is definitely not her long-lost father, but someone even she could fall in love with, or at least into bed. The strange encounter with Beau, who embodies all the adventure and excitement she longed for, leads her spiraling back to what she knows best and understands least–her own family.

As written by T.M. Griffin, “Rumor Has It” unfolds in the sedate, “old money” Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena. Pasadena is that perfect, proper, stratified enclave, where everything is done by the rules; everybody goes to the same country club and shops in the same stores. In short, it's a rather oppressive and dull lifestyle for a vibrant woman like Sarah.

Sarah's character is far more interesting than the way it is played by Aniston. Confused and unsure of her identity, Sarah feels a big piece of herself is missing, because she has always felt disconnected from her family, especially after her mother's death. Sarah's been living in New York, pursuing a journalism career that has peaked at writing wedding announcements and obituaries for the Times.

The ambivalence she feels toward her job and family is echoed in her relationship with Jeff, whom she is terrified of marrying. Sarah is frightened of being sucked into her family's staid way of life. Seeking adventure, she feels she might be settling for mediocrity and fears she might lose herself in a bourgeois lifestyle.

Sarah's father, Earl (Richard Jenkins), the family's anchor, welcomes Jeff like a son, but Sarah is reluctant to reveal to anyone they're engaged. By not telling anyone, she is avoiding making a choice. Earl seems oblivious to any tension or unease on Sarah's part, but he really is not.

Ruffalo plays Jeff as a decent guy with clear intentions–and lots of patience. In love with Sarah, Jeff looks forward to getting married. Then he sees her spin out into indecision and reticence about their commitment.

By contrast, Sarah's sister can only giggle about the prospect of being married. Unlike Sarah, Annie is buoyant and bubbly, as Sarah puts it, “My sister likes to bounce.” Sarah can't believe that her sister is plunging into marriage with such ease. To her, it looks alarmingly like the end of any possible excitement and the beginning of stultifying boredom.

In the Huttinger household, everyone sticks to safe topics–sports, tennis, fishing. As a result, Sarah hasn't been able to explore or understand those things she felt were missing from her connection to her family. The yarn unfolds as Sarah's emotional journey to find her voice, but it's not a funny or poignant journey for us viewers.

The most sympathetic ear belongs to Sarah's mother's mother, Katharine, who detests the moniker of “Grandma.” MacLaine plays her as a former movie star stuck in Pasadena's stolid community. We get the feeling that she has survived in this milieu because of her rebellious nature and reckless humor. Katharine doesn't want to hurt her son-in-law's feelings, and she doesn't want to tell the whole story of what happened between herself, her daughter, and their common lover.

Matters get more complicated, when Sarah learns through her Aunt that this young man was a classmate and best friend of the author of the novel, “The Graduate.” Sarah is shocked, because she has never heard this story about her mother. She always imagined her mother as a nice, sweet homemaker. The idea that she was feeling trapped, exactly what Sarah's now feeling, is astonishing to her. Like mother like daughter Did Sarah's mother run away to escape boredom or was it simply a romantic tryst

To decipher the puzzle of her lineage, Sarah sets off on a treasure hunt, to find the man who may be the missing piece of her life. At the heart of Sarah's conflict is her fear that somehow a chance for any adventure in her life will end with marriage. When she finally encounters the man her mother ran off to meet in Baja California, she too comes under his spell.

Beau represents adventure and excitement, the dream of a life that might be out there yet. The movie plays on the notion of three generations of women have taken this little detour through Beau-country in order to find out who they are. Debonair and a throwback to old-time movie stars, Beau (and Costner) is worldly and at the same time direct and down to earth. Looking good at middle age, and just as relaxed as he was as Joan Allen's lover in “Upside of Anger,” Costner makes it believable that Beau could have had this affect on Sarah, her mother, and her grandmother.

“Rumor Has It” is set in 1997 to sync the timing of “The Graduate” novel and movie with the ages of the characters, but the setting is essentially contemporary Pasadena, with stops in New York and Northern California along the way.

About the Graduate

Nominated for seven Oscars and winner for Best Director, this groundbreaking social satire launched the career of Dustin Hoffman. Pulsating with the rebellious spirit of the 1960s and the landmark score by Simon and Garfunkel, the film starred Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, and Katherine Ross as her daughter, Elaine. The screenplay, by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, was based on Charles Webb's 1963 novel. Dramatizing the post-graduate blues of Pasadena native Benjamin, the comedy chronicles his encounters with Mrs. Robinson, the bored but attractive wife of his father's law partner. When Benjamin falls in love with the Robinson's beautiful daughter Elaine, Mrs. Robinson sabotages their relationship by telling Elaine of her affair with Benjamin. Undeterred, and for the first time in his life knowing exactly what he wants, Benjamin relentlessly pursues Elaine as she prepares to marry another man.