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Story of Us

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Story of Us

Starring: Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer
Director: Rob Reiner
Rated: R
RunTime: 90 Minutes
Release Date: October 1999
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Casey Boersma, Jake Sandvig, Rita Wilson, Julie Hagerty, Tim Matheson, Rob Reiner, Colleen Rennison

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Move over Ingmar Bergman. Only a relative handful of American moviegoers ever saw your "Scenes from a Marriage," however honest and searing a portrait that wrenching 168-minute film. Here in America, we have another voice telling us about the disintegration of a marriage, and what's more, he tells all in English so that we don't have to read those pesky titles or hear people like Max von Sydow endlessly drone, "It was the bleak winter following a wet and discouraging summer, a time that Eva was birthing her fourth child and thinking of going away for a spell..."

Just kidding, Ingmar, nobody will compare with you when it comes to depressing the heck out of us about the miseries of matrimony, but even you might get a kick out of Rob Reiner's mixture of comedy and pathos in "The Story of Us." The picture is loaded with side-splitting side roles, particularly those involving the director who is acting in his own production, with whimsical one-liners thrown in by the frizzy- haired Rita Wilson, a trio of full-of-themselves psychologists, a literary agent, and even an irrelevant piece of nonsense from none other than Red Buttons as the wife of perennial AARP spokesperson Betty White. What's more Reiner coaxes yet another surprisingly adept performance by Bruce Willis who once again does not lay his finger on a gun, and gets some movement from one of my least favorite gorgeous actresses, Michelle Pfeiffer.

"The Story of Us" is about history: not about the sort that begins in Sumer but the history of a marriage: how it begins as two people fall in lust, how, like the good citizens of Sumer and Troy they build something (in this case a couple of model kids), and how like all glorious civilizations they fall apart. The ending is an out-and-out copout, because Reiner is not Bergman and American moviegoers are presumably not as realistic and down-to-earth as Swedes. If you left the theater four minutes before the conclusion, as some did believing that the movie had already run its course, you were lucky to miss the contrived conclusion. Notwithstanding, the picture ranks as a insightful if not brilliant piece of story-telling that does not quite rise to the level of myth. The Big Truth about relationships, though--that honeymoons last for only a year or two--is already too well known by most of us, even if we act as though we'd never heard the concept.

In Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson's screenplay, Reiner relates the highs and lows of a 15-year marriage between two people who--by the looks of them--should never have had the troubles they experienced. Unfortunately they each had a different pair of parents who indoctrinated them in distinct ways, so that when one marriage counselor advises that "when you go to bed, there are six people lying with you" and when Reiner graphically illustrates this well-known idea, we get the point.

Reiner uses a stage device sparingly and effectively. From time to time, Katie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Ben Jordan (Bruce Willis) face the camera separately and tell us in the audience what's on their minds. Each is eager to have the viewers as allies. You can tell from their soliloquies, though, that as much as they expect to split, they dream of reconciling their differences. Katie composes crossword puzzles for her boss while Ben is a novelist. Ben is the more spontaneous person, one who does not even wear a watch, while Katie is more the type who goes through life on schedules. Ben declares aloud to Katie, in full volume, "You turned into your god-damned mother," while Katie muses, "When is the moment in a marriage when a spoon becomes just a spoon?"

Each time the two are getting along just fine, one of them says something that sounds to us innocent enough, but that's all it takes to set off another war of the roses. Bruce Willis as Ben and Michelle Pfeiffer as his wife of 15 years, Katie, do not really convince us that what they say can be responsible for these orgies of verbal destruction, but anyone who has been married as long as their characters have been can relate to the fact that just about anything can be used as an excuse to let off steam.

The real fun comes from side characters, though, particularly director Rob Reiner in the role of Ben's best friend. In one discussion, he uses a down-to-earth illustration to prove his point. "Look at me," he suggests to Ben, leaning over. "What do you see?" "Your ass," replies Ben, the seemingly obvious answer. "Wrong. I don't have an ass. That is an illusion. This is just the tops of legs butting together--that's why they call it a butt. Love is an illusion, just like the ass. Love is lust." When Katie gets together with her best friends, played by Rita Wilson and Julie Hagerty, they too discuss the nature of relationships, taking a similarly pithy route, with even more ribald terminology than that used by the men.

What is most diverting about the flashbacks is the mere sight of the characters as they appeared fifteen years back. Ben, now with thinning hear, sports hippie-ish locks and Katie looks dazzling with her hair long and flowing freely. The scene shot in Venice, where the troubled couple went to try to repair their regressive marriage, is especially convincing and droll, particularly when Ben and Katie meet "the Kirbys from Cleveland," each the epitome of the ugly American.

The tagline for the film is, "Can a marriage survive 15 years of marriage?" Ingmar Bergman and Rob Reiner have different answers, each suitable for his own kind of audience. Bergman's is the more realistic. Reiner's will bring in the box office. So then: "The Story of Us"--a worthwhile feature in the Rob Reiner comic tradition with two perfectly fine performances by Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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