Friday October 15, 1999
When the smiling, photogenic Jordans sit down to dinner, parents Katie and Ben like to engage 12-year-old Josh and 10-year-old Erin in a game called "high/low" in which each family member has to sound off on his or her best and worst experiences of the day.
Similarly, "The Story of Us," the dramatic comedy about a make-or-break summer in Katie and Ben's relationship, shows us the highs and lows in a marriage that has lasted 15 years but is now floundering. With their kids safely out of the way in camp, the Jordans embark on a trial separation, trying to figure out how what was once so good got so bad.
"The Story of Us," which stars Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer as the troubled Jordans, wants to be an honest look at the problems that can beset a modern marriage, and be funny at the same time, but it doesn't have the skills or the temperament to pull all that off. Written by Alan Zweibel ("It's Gary Shandling's Show" and the disastrous "North") and Jessie Nelson (the teary double bill of "Corinna, Corinna" and "Stepmom") and directed by Rob Reiner, "The Story of Us" has some affecting moments, but its manufactured crises and too-glib jokes give it a facile, fraudulent air.
A wannabe sensitive film that's scared of cutting too deeply, "The Story of Us" doesn't want to be real enough to jeopardize its homogenized humor. While it's already hard to accept carefully photographed major stars like Willis and Pfeiffer as regular folks with everyday problems, it's even harder when both their fun and their fury seem slickly scripted. Not only don't we feel the Jordans' pain, it's not clear that we even want to.
A prototypic Westside couple down to their monster sports utility vehicle, Craftsman-style house and fondness for Thai food and the Oceana Hotel, husband and wife face the camera separately, directly giving audiences their own sides of the story as the film displays their personal highs and lows.
Ben and Katie met when they both had starter jobs and a great deal more hair. He was a writer on a TV show dreaming of going out on his own; she was an office temp eager to create crossword puzzles. He got her attention by throwing handfuls of paper clips in her direction. Truly, love is grand.
That dichotomy of chaos versus order became the road map of this relationship and marriage. Katie was the obsessive one who kept the calendar and made the trains run on time, while Ben, though he furiously denied it, was the family's third child, a spontaneous big kid who was partial to Hawaiian shirts and wacky improvisations.
By the time Katie and Ben are thinking about divorce and hiding their problems from their kids (Colleen Rennison and Jake Sandvig), they've gotten so tired of each other's proclivities that they can't even be bothered to laugh at their partner's jokes.
Though these kinds of difficulties are real enough, the things Katie and Ben say to each other face to face and to us in extensive voice-over are too practiced to be effective. Lines such as "Fighting becomes the condition not the exception," "Some hurts you never completely get over" and "The loudest silences are filled with everything that's been said" all seem to come right out of some "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" relationship video.
Making the situation worse is the smug and obnoxious pals both Katie and Ben have. His, played by comic actors Paul Reiser and Reiner himself, try to decide if phone sex counts as cheating, while hers, especially Rita Wilson's Rachel, are so glib and breezy they couldn't sound more artificial. It's when it wanders outside the family circle that "The Story's" preoccupation with wisecracks is at its worst.
Pfeiffer and Willis acquit themselves as well as the script and direction allow, though Willis' romantic comedy timing does seem to have gotten rusty since his "Moonlighting" days. Their movie-stars-yelling-at-each-other relationship doesn't feel much more real than the happily married act they put on for their kids. It may fool some of the people, but it won't fool them all of the time.
The Story of Us, 1999. R, for language and brief sexuality. A Castle Rock presentation, released by Universal Pictures. Director Rob Reiner. Producers Rob Reiner, Alan Zweibel, Jessie Nelson. Executive producers Jeffrey Stott, Frank Capra III. Screenplay Alan Zweibel & Jessie Nelson. Cinematographer Michael Chapman. Editors Robert Leighton, Alan Edward Bell. Costumes Shay Cunliffe. Music Eric Clapton, Marc Shaiman. Production design Lilly Kilvert. Art directors Chris Burian-Mohr, Jess Gonchor. Set decorators Sarah Jackson Burt, Kathy Lucas. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. Michelle Pfeiffer as Katie Jordan. Bruce Willis as Ben Jordan. Rita Wilson as Rachel. Rob Reiner as Stan. Julie Hagerty as Liza. Paul Reiser as Dave. Tim Matheson as Marty.