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'Story of Us': What a Lot of Quip

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 1999

  Movie Critic


'The Story of Us'
Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer star in "The Story of Us." (Universal)

Director:
Rob Reiner
Cast:
Bruce Willis;
Michelle Pfeiffer;
Rob Reiner;
Rita Wilson;
Julie Hagerty
Running Time:
1 hour, 36 minutes
R
Contains obscenity, sexual situations and "comedy"
It takes some nerve to call a movie "The Story of Us." It isn't the story of us. It's the story of them.

They are Ben and Katie Jordan, a thinly imagined L.A.-La Land couple with three kids, including the husband, and one dictator, who also happens to be the wife. They whine, they spat, they kvetch, they think about cheating, they run out of things to say to each other. Hmmm, come to think of it, that does sound a lot like us.

But they do all this through a prism of New York comedy writing, where all of life is only material and every comment is a carefully shaped quip. You don't hear people talking; you hear bits. You hear the patter at a Beverly Hills delicatessen where the writers gather for breakfast. You hear Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks and Neil Simon and those great '50s writers of "The Sid Caesar Show" who took the Yiddish rhythms of New York comedy national.

That was then; now is now. And now, to hear modern performers like Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer talking like characters in "The Out-of-Towners XIV" is weirdly dispiriting, especially when what they say is so banal and the heartaches they obscure so wracking.

At the heart of the Jordans' failed family is the old chasm between the creative and the organized. These types always seem to marry each other. How do I know? Don't ask.

Anyhow, he's some kind of comedy writer who never wears a watch and can't remember to refill the windshield wiper fluid bottle but teems with joie de vivre, life force and spontaneity. She considers joie de vivre, life force and spontaneity overrated. She is a perfectionist (she writes crossword puzzles in a not-very-believable sub-subplot with which the movie does nothing). She has become schedule-obsessive and rules with a joyless despotism largely determined by the fact that whenever he calls with a whimsical epiphany to share, the washer is overflowing and the kids are fighting. She hates it when that happens! They see in each other what they know is not in themselves, and that's why they marry. That is also why they come to hate each other.

The story's present is the summer that Ben and Katie decide to separate, while their children are away at camp. This continual lie they tell the kids is in itself a little icky: They put on big phony-hearty, happy-happy performances to shield the children, which, of course, is nonsense. The kids would know. The kids always know. Worse, the coldblooded dishonesty certainly isolates them from our sympathy, though you feel the filmmakers think it makes the couple seem noble.

The movie is a postmodernist construction by premodernist comedy minds (Alan Zweibel and Rob Reiner; Reiner directs and co-stars, and Zweibel co-produces, and I have a sneaking feeling this is really The Story of Alan Zweibel, but never mind). It's actually quite bizarre.

Much of the film is voice-over narration as Willis and Pfeiffer each face the camera, pretending it's a therapist, and testify in psychobabble to the other marriage partner's inadequacy. The lens then turns to the occasional snapshot of family life, an anecdote, but far more commonly what might be called choral performances.

It seems they are professional friends with two couples, who themselves separate into man-and-woman units like tag teams and do routines in restaurants about the other sex. It's like a celebrity death-match quip-o-rama on the Comedy Channel and so fake that it's almost annoying, particularly with performers as huggy-bear sentimental as Reiner and Paul Reiser (in an unbilled cameo) on the guy side, and Rita Wilson and Julie Hagerty on the gal side. This isn't life, it's shtick.

Anyhow, away from the other (Ben's in a Los Angeles hotel, Katie's in the family's homey Arts and Crafts bungalow), each recalls key moments in their marriage, which provides the movie with some rough sense of narrative, though it is so primitively imagined that the hairpieces (in Willis's case) and hairdos (in Pfeiffer's) that stand for youth seem ridiculous.

At one point, the movie became so excruciating that I literally had to leave the room. It becomes "The Story of Us Bigots." In Venice, trying to restore the magic, the fabulous Jordans are assailed by somebody's idea of a typical Midwestern couple, two braying fatties whose idea of a good time is to yammer endlessly about themselves. But the ugly smugness of the film reaches epic proportions; I fled to the lobby, waiting for the poor Ohioans to be dispatched without my having to witness it.

There's no real thrust or growth. Willis and Pfeiffer just go on having loud comic arguments, stopping now and then for comic riffs by the chorus members.

Willis seems particularly miscast. His tendencies toward smirkiness have been encouraged and sentimentalized. As for Pfeiffer, she spends so much time screaming at him for failing to fill the windshield wiper fluid container in the van that it's easy to forget she is one of the world's most beautiful women and gifted actresses. Michelle, enough with the mommy crap! Get a cocktail dress and a pair of very high-heeled Steve Maddens, and make us dream about you again.

Ach! Ick! Unclean, unclean! Folks, I really feel that seeing this one for you is the movie critic's equivalent of jumping on the grenade to save your lives. Send me medals.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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