The Story of Us (1999)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Cast: Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rob Reiner, Rita Wilson, Colleen Rennison, Jake Sandvig, Tim Matheson, Paul Reiser, Lucy Webb, Julie Hagerty, Red Buttons, Jayne Meadows, Betty White, Tom Poston, Jordan Lund.
1999 96 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 16, 1999.
Rob Reiner's "The Story of Us," the new comedy-drama about the highs and lows of a couple's rocky 15-year marriage, is a film that gets so many of the details exactly right, that it comes as a disappointment to find that the denouement arrives about twenty minutes too early, apparently due to either numerous cuts made prior to its release, or a promising, if uneven, script that wasn't ready to be put onto film. The talent is all in place, it seems, but its snappily-paced structure in which it goes back-and-forth in time only causes the proceedings to feel episodic and strangely disjointed.
Ben (Bruce Willis) and Katie Jordan (Michelle Pfeiffer) have been married fifteen years, and to most, give off the appearance of being gloriously happy with each other. At dinner with their children, 10-year-old Erin (Colleen Rennison) and 12-year-old Josh (Jake Sandvig), each night, they like to play a game called High/Low, in which they go around the room and each family member must state their highest and lowest point of that particular day. Once alone, however, Ben and Katie's exteriors transform from marital bliss to their plans on what they are going to do when the kids leave for summer camp the following day--they will leave together, for the children, but Ben is then going to start packing up some clothes for his stay at a nearby hotel, without Katie. Once separated by everything but the telephone (they construct artificial excuses just to call up each other because they do secretly long to be together again), both sides of the progressively-drifting-apart couple reminisce about what their life has been like since they first met each other. Will they realize that fifteen years is simply too much time for them to throw their relationship away, or will they come to terms with the fact that they'll most likely be better off apart? I'll leave the particulars of the answer to this question up to the viewer to discover, but let's put it this way--had the more subtle, skilled Woody Allen have made the picture (and, for the most part, it really is reminiscent of his work), the outcome probably would have been a little different.
As it should be, the two people that are front-and-center for the entirety of the brief 96-minute running time are Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer, both of whom have never been better (aside from Pfeiffer's marvelous role as Catwoman in 1992's "Batman Returns"). Willis, usually burdened by an unknowing smirk plastered upon his face, throws the majority of his usual acting mannerisms to the wind to create a character we have never seen him play before, and his performance here--and it hits all of the right notes, mind you--is even superior to his delicately poignant turn in the recent box-office smash, "The Sixth Sense."
Michelle Pfeiffer, an engaging actress who, nonetheless, makes frequent missteps in her film choices (just take a look at her work in the otherwise mediocre 1999 drama, "The Deep End of the Ocean," and 1997's painfully overwrought "A Thousand Acres"), is Willis' match in every way. Bringing off an astute believability to the premise, Pfeiffer, more than even Willis, makes her character someone who creditably appears to be longing for a reconciliation with the man whom she still loves deeply. And her final, tearful monologue is a real winner, evoking the distinct feelings of joy, pain, sentimentality, and frustration that, no doubt, comes with any close marriage. Despite being instructed to scream at one another a few too many times for my taste, the marital woes of Ben and Katie are effectively and realistically brought to life, as we find ourselves truly caring about what happens to them.
It's not so much that there is anything distinctly wrong with what appears in the finished product of "The Story of Us," as there is merely a sensation floating overhead that tells me the film could have been remarkably better had the screenplay, by Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson, been more fully-written. The flashback-laden construction of the plotting is smoothly-done, but for it to really work to its fullest potential, the film calls for itself to be of epic proportions, a motion picture about the truths of marriage and love/hate relationships, similar to Ingmar Bergman's 1973 drama, "Scenes from a Marriage." As is, there are many on-target moments that hold just the right tone, while several montages are included to rush us through protracted periods of time. The problem is, the montages seem like nothing but advertisements for the actual film, and, I swear to you, one montage late in the picture is almost exactly like the theatrical trailer, with even the same music score, by Eric Clapton, in the background.
The supporting cast is chock-full of recognizable thesps that are unfortunately all wasted. Rob Reiner and Paul Reiser briefly appear as Ben's friends, and ditto for Rita Wilson and the severely underrated Julie Hagerty as Katie's. Tim Matheson has nothing to do but play the potential guy that Katie is considering having an affair with, and there is no attempt to turn him into anything more than a one-dimensional figure whose purprose is to cause a conflict. Really, the only supporting performance that is worth noting is that of Colleen Rennison as Erin, Ben and Katie's young daughter. The 12-year-old Rennison (last seen in a pair of 1996 bombs, "Carpool" and "Unforgettable") proves to be a naturally-gifted actress who is touching as a girl who suspects something is wrong with her parents, but hopes only for the best.
In its depiction of a marriage on the rocks, "The Story of Us" is successful in its ideas, but not necessarily in its treatment. There are many wonderful moments, including an interlude midway through in which Katie and Ben decide to take a trip to Venice in an attempt to rekindle their flames, and a particular scene that shows them dancing along the water is simply magical. Its major fall, however, comes in its generally crowd-pleasing conclusion that, to be sure, leaves things on an uplifting note, but feels like a cheat when considering the validity of the situations that had come before. It has been widely reported that Willis filmed this movie around the same time his own marriage with actress Demi Moore was coming to an end. Perhaps in staying with the film's truthfulness, Willis should have suggested a less-neat finale that remained faithful to its characters and their plight, without going into what could basically be described as fantasy territory.
©1999 by Dustin Putman