Wedding Bell Blahs

Union dispute belabors forgettable The Story of Us

The makers of The Story of Us have a premise they want to share. Check it out -- according to this movie, men and women often have different responses to life, love and sex, and this can sometimes result in conflict and tension in a marriage. And you thought American Beauty was daring.

The "us" of the title are (is?) Ben (Bruce Willis) and Katie (Michelle Pfeiffer). He's a writer, successful enough for a big house in the L.A. 'burbs and vacations in Venice. She's a writer, too -- she composes crossword puzzles. In another movie, this career would be a symbol of her lack of fulfillment, but here it's her lifelong dream. This would be charming, except that this is supposed to be a big clue to her personality.

In front of their loving kids (Jake Sandvig and Colleen Rennison), who aren't fooled for a minute, Ben and Katie are all smiles and solicitude. As soon as the kids leave the room or the car, however, Ben and Katie's faces go slack, like pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the atmosphere becomes poisonous. They pack the kids off to summer camp, then separate and spend most of the rest of the film sitting around having flashbacks.

He said, she said: Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Story of Us.
He said, she said: Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Story of Us.

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Rated R.

Funny thing about those flashbacks -- they're remarkably unilluminating. We really don't learn exactly what the hell the problem is that could produce such a big chill. Except that Katie once walked in on Ben while he was talking about their love life with his secretary, the conflict between the husband and wife seems to be all generalities: He's too undisciplined and disorganized, and she's too ordered and uptight and lacking in spontaneity, especially sexual spontaneity.

In movie terms, of course, we know what this means: It's her fault. The director, Rob Reiner, and the screenwriters, Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson, would probably insist that they were showing both sides, but the conflict inevitably plays that he's a fun-loving free spirit and she's a rigid, frigid bitch.

Pfeiffer, stunning as ever, is understandably stymied by this role -- the few traits she's been given to play are unattractive. Her final, teary outburst is a Hail Mary attempt to connect in some empathic way with the audience, and the desperation behind her grotesquely exaggerated delivery is fairly obvious.

Willis comes off better. Why wouldn't he? The movie is on his side. Still, he brings more energy to the party than it really deserves. Although his vehicles haven't always served him well, he's always been an unobtrusively good actor; his beautiful performance in The Sixth Sense was a high point, not, as some suggested, a fluke.

Zweibel, a writer on the early Saturday Night Live, wrote Gilda Radner's "Roseanne Roseannadanna" monologues, which may give him a karmic counterbalance to the noxious film adapted from his own novel, North (also directed by Reiner). Nelson wrote and directed Corrina, Corrina, and had a hand in the script of Stepmom. The result of their collaboration on The Story of Us isn't dreadful to watch -- the film is snappily directed and edited, and there are moments of funny acting. Rita Wilson as Katie's friend and Reiner and Paul Reiser as Ben's pals get a few decent quips, and deliver them with sass.

But the script is all homiletic commonplaces, in quip form, and the wisdom is both stale and dubious. The Story of Us may have a future as a teaching tool at Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus seminars.

 
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