Story of Us, The

After Ghosts of Mississippi, his disappointing foray into political drama, Rob Reiner goes back to the kinds of themes he's more comfortable with in The Story of Us, a serio-comic anatomy of the ups and downs of a 15-year-marriage between two bright and attractive partners, credibly played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis. More somber than humorous, the tale is burdened by a complicated time scheme of flashbacks and flashforwards that will prevent audiences from bring directly involved in–and entertained by–the endless bickering and reconciliations of the central duo.

It's doubtful that Willis's B.O. clout will help the commercial prospects of a film that suffers from repetition of ideas and images. Opening in an extremely crowded and competitive marketplace, Universal release should have a modest opening and a brief theatrical run, with a brighter future in ancillary venues and on the small screen.

Watching Story of Us, one gets the impression that the filmmakers really believe they are conveying deep emotional and universal truths about how to survive a long-enduring marriage beyond the initial phases of romantic love and passion. However, as conceived by scripters Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson, it's just a small, tolerable film in the oeuvre of those involved, from helmer Reiner to his two stars, who are likeable but can elevate only up to a point the uneven material, which ranges from sharply observed scenes to downright embarrassing and schmaltzy ones.

Yarn begins with writer Ben Jordan (Willis) sitting on a sofa and declaring to the camera his philosophy of life, his firm belief in staying together and happy endings. This is contrasted with a tense dinner scene, in which, Ben, his wife Katie (Pfeiffer) and their two children discuss the highs and lows of their days, a routine that serves as a motif for the entire picture.

About to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary, the Jordans have grown apart and their chief dilemma seems to be how to maintain the facade of a unified family in front of their children. Rather conveniently, the script arranges for the kids to be sent to summer camp so that their parents can understand what has gone wrong, or more specifically to wrestle with the paradox of how the very qualities that made them fall in love in their first place are now the very things to pull them apart.

Emotionally drained from their frustrating, sexless relationship, they attempt a trial separation, and each retreats in silence to his/her corner: Katie stays in the house and Ben moves out to a nearby hotel. Story unfolds as a series of brief reflections on their shared history, from their first, charming meeting in an office up to the present, when each is in bed waiting for the other to call.

Through Ben's and Katie's voice-over narrations, we learn how Katie has become “the designated driver” of the marriage based on her need for stability and order. Her career as a designer of crossword puzzles was motivated by her need to always have answers to life's “little questions,” which the riddles provide through their closure. In contrast, Ben is a writer blessed with imagination, spontaneity, and playfulness, attributes that complement Katie's rationality and efficiency.

The ins and outs of the marriage, and the difficulties of staying together, are not related in a chronological order, and for a while, it's fun to detect the particular era of the story by the look of the couple, their clothes and hairdos. There are brief snippets of their wedding, sex on the kitchen table, babies, birthdays, New Year's, and so on.

Problem is that the stylistic devices used, which recall early Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky, get increasingly tedious, disrupting not only the sequence of events but also preventing the audience from feeling real sympathy for the protagonists. There are too many voice-overs and too many flashbacks, and everything in the film is symmetric or parallel. Hence, if Ben is meeting his buddies in a diner, the next scene will show Katie and her friends in a restaurant.

Worse yet, every once in a while Reiner's TV past as an actor sneaks into the film, as in a poorly orchestrated montage of the various shrinks (each more eccentric than the other) the couple consulted. At one point, the Jordans are told that when they have sex, they are actually six people in their bed: Themselves, Ben's folks (played by veteran comedians Red Buttons and Betty White) and Katie's (Jayne Meadows and Tom Poston); sure enough, Reiner clutters their bed with six people engaged in overlapping dialogue. Just when the story becomes dreary, Reiner has the good sense of sending his couple for a romantic renewal to Venice, and the next sequence becomes a touristic travelogue.

There have been excellent American movies about the breakup of relationships and dissolution of marriages through the traumatic experience of divorce. The novelty of Story of Us may be in its realistic dwelling on the details that lead to this trauma, but that doesn't necessarily make for an involving or entertaining picture. With the exception of the ending, all the interesting ideas are exposed in the first two reels, which makes the last one superfluous.

In its good moments, Story of Us feels like an American version of the kind of film that almost every French director has made, from Claude Sautet to Eric Rohmer to Truffaut and Chabrol. Nonetheless, unlike those works, Reiner's film, just like its title, is literal, earnest, and therapeutic.

Moreover, the tale's big lessons, that marriage consists of both the magical and challenging times, and that relationships fall apart as a result of the day-to-day grind, not the big, momentous events, should not surprise any mature viewer.

Drawing on her beauty and dramatic range, Pfeiffer delivers a compelling performance, though her big monologue at the end is not as effective as it should be. In a role reversal, as a man who's more demonstrative of his emotions than his wife, Willis is also good. Most of the secondary characters are one-dimensional, used for comic relief, including Reiner as a man who speaks in metaphorical terms, Rita Wilson, who's cast against type as loud, foul-mouthed and opinionated, and Tim Matheson, as a sensitive divorce who takes cooking lessons.

Production values are proficient but unexceptional, and this includes ace lenser Michael Chapman whose visuals here don't measure up to his work for Scorsese and others. Eric Clapton's melodic song frames the film, lending it the proper sweet-and-sour tone.

Cast

Katie Jordan…Michelle Pfeiffer
Ben Jordan………Bruce Willis
Marty…………..Tim Matheson
Stan……………..Rob Reiner
Rachel…………..Rita Wilson
Dave…………….Paul Reiser
Liza…………..Julie Hagerty
Erin at 10…..Colleen Rennison
Josh at 12………Jake Sandvig
Dot……………Jayne Meadows
Harry…………….Tom Poston
Lillian………….Betty White
Arnie……………Red Buttons

Credits

A Universal release of a Castle Rock Entertainment presentation. Produced by Rob Reiner, Alan Zweibel, and Jessie Nelson. Executive producers, Jeffrey Stott, Frank Capra III. Directed by Rob Reiner. Screenplay, Zweibel and Nelson. Camera (color, DeLuxe), Michael Chapman; editors, Robert Leighton, Alan Edward Bell; music, Mark Shaiman, Eric Clapton; production design, Lilly Kilvert; art direction, Chris Burian-Mohr, Jess Gonchor; set decoration, Sarah Jackson Burt, Kathy Lucas; costume design, Shay Cunliffe; makeup, Michael Germain; sound (Dolby/SDDS), Robert Eber; associate producer, Tammy Glover; assistant director, Frank Capra III

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 94 Minutes.