The Story of Us
Screenplay : Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Bruce Willis (Ben Jordan), Michelle Pfeiffer (Katie Jordan), Rob Reiner (Stan), Rita Wilson (Rachel), Julie Hagerty (Liza), Paul Reiser (Dave), Tim Matheson (Marty)
At the climax of "The Story of Us," Katie Jordan (Michelle Pfeiffer) has a sudden epiphany, which is followed by a long, tear-soaked monologue in which she explains to her husband, Ben (Bruce Willis), why they shouldn't get divorced. She cites many positives about their relationship, how they know each other, how they've built a history together--essentially, why they're an "us." However, one thing she said caught my attention more than anything else: "There's been more good than bad."
This didn't catch my attention because I saw it as a wonderful rationale for why a married couple should continue their relationship. Instead, I saw it as the key to why "The Story of Us" does not work: Contrary to Katie's statement, there's much more bad than good.
I'm no proponent of divorce, but after an hour and forty-five minutes of watching Ben and Katie scream at each other, I was about to yell, "Bring on the divorce lawyer!" I suppose the movie intends to show us why Ben and Katie should stay together, but it does just the opposite--it makes a clear-cut case for why these two people should not live together.
Perhaps if the screenwriters, Alan Zweibel ("North") and Jessie Nelson ("Stepmom") had chosen to structure the narrative chronologically, the movie would have worked better because at least we would have been able to trace the arc of the marriage. We could have seen how and why Ben and Katie fell in love with each other and what made them want to spend the rest of their lives together.
But, as it is, "The Story of Us" opens in medias res, with Ben and Katie in their earlier forties with two kids and a lot of built-up resentment and anger toward each other. The movie isn't ten minutes old before they're yelling at each other, and the first of countless instances where Eric Clapton bogs down the soundtrack with maudlin guitar strumming while he croons, "I'm sorry Š"
The majority of the present-tense narrative takes place over a summer, when Ben and Katie have finally decided to separate and are teetering on the verge of divorce. With the kids sent away for many weeks at summer camp, and Ben moved out of the house into his own apartment, they have plenty of time to mull over their relationship and decide whether or not it's worth salvaging.
Of course, even when they remember the "good old days," most of the memories (shown in quick flashbacks) are miserable. There are a few bright moments, such as a humorous sequence where they travel to Venice only to be saddled with the company of a couple of obnoxious tourists from Cleveland, but the majority of the movie plays like a psychological battering ram. Scene after scene is calculated to lull you into the idea that something good might happen, only to degenerate into a shouting match.
There is truth in some of these scenes, but they don't add up to anything greater than the idea that some people just don't get along. The fights are too simplistic, and they amount to little more than a battle of volume. These constant verbal wars are meant to be symbols of the deteriorating marriage, but they don't carry the kind of heartbreaking resonance found in films like Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" (1973) or even Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives" (1992). There are numerous sequences with Willis and Pfeiffer addressing the camera directly in an attempt to shed greater light on the characters, but most of what they say is repetitive in that the emotions are brought out better through the characters' actions, rather than their explication.
Director Rob Reiner has made a number of great movies about human relationships, especially 1989's "When Harry Met Sally Š", a movie that truly understood the working mechanics of the relationships between men and women while also eliciting great moments of humor. Reiner attempts something similar in "The Story of Us."
The humor is hit and miss, and most of it is misplaced. Taking a note from Nora Ephron, Zweibel and Nelson populate the movie with eccentric side characters (played by Rita Wilson, Paul Reiser, and Reiner himself) who serve a dual function. First, they position themselves as people the Willis and Pfeiffer characters can confide in; second, they offer all kinds of ridiculous advice and social commentary that is meant to lighten the movie's overall dreary tone, but ends up as a bright signifier of the movie's general desperation.
Willis and Pfeiffer battle bravely in their roles, and both actors manage to give their vocal chords quite a work-out. But, it is to little avail. Perhaps the problem is that they have no real chemistry. Looking at Willis and Pfeiffer standing side-by-side, they simply do not look like a married couple. So, instead of asking yourself why they should get back together, you end up wondering how on earth they ever got together in the first place.
©1999 James Kendrick