When the biggest laugh from a sympathetic audience is elicited by voice shtick – Rita Wilson’s voice rising out of control into upper registers – you know Rob Reiner is in trouble. No one could have anticipated that his new film, The Story of Us, would be released on the heels of American Beauty, and the viewpoints of the two films are worlds apart, but they are both dealing with contemporary, suburban American life and marriage and the searing, multi-layered accomplishment of Sam Mendes’ film throws the thinness of Reiner’s into glaring perspective.
The Story of Us is a full length sitcom that’s missing both the sit and the com. Ben (Bruce Willis), a writer, and Katie (Michelle Pfeiffer), who creates crossword puzzles, have been married fifteen years, are bringing up two great kids, and live in Los Angeles upper-middleclass luxury. Money is not a problem, the kids are not a problem, careers are not a problem. But their marriage is slipping onto the rocks anyway as romance seems to have evaporated into a mist of petty arguments over day-to-day details of living. Honestly, it is hard to feel you want to run a benefit for the Jordans, sympathetic as the portrayals are.
In a real tv sitcom, a good one, the characters tend to embody certain traits that come into play over the series, like Archie Bunker’s crusty bigotry, Maude’s pompous liberalism, or Sam Malone’s randy vanity. The ways that the characters respond to different situations become somewhat predictable and those variations on a theme, growing out of incident and character, are what sustain interest and humor over the life of a series.
In The Story of Us the roles of the two principals are described: she is the "designated driver," seeing that the details of domestic life are seen to, while he is the creative one, spontaneous and playful. It is this difference that was part of what drew them together as well as the problem that is now separating them, or so they say. What we know about them is presented as monologues with Willis and Pfeiffer talking directly at the audience, or, in voiceovers with flashbacks to earlier, cliched scenes from their marriage. The humor/drama that arises out of incident and characterization is what is sorely missing from The Story of Us - it talks too much and tells too much while showing too little. After the kids are packed off to camp, Ben and Katie feel free to fight openly, instead of hiding their differences to protect the kids. But it’s hard to believe or sympathize with their plight because it’s only been talked about, it hasn’t been demonstrated.
Willis and Pfeiffer both give engaging performances, injecting more life into the weak script than it merits. Each has a climactic emotional scene. He goes over the top in a restaurant (a nonsexual variation on Reiner’s restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally) over his frustrated inability to understand what has gone wrong. She emotionally finally realizes the importance of fifteen years of shared experience. But both scenes fall short because they haven’t been earned by the substance of what has preceded. Reiner doesn’t show why or how they have come to their new understanding.
There are great supporting actors, all searching for something to do, for some characterization to hang their hats on, but it is not to be found in the script, alas. The best lines fall to Paul Reiser (Mad About You), the king of wry, but his role seems to be merely superimposed so the lines can be used. He seems to have walked in from another movie; it surely isn’t clear what he is doing in this one.
Four old comics, Jayne Meadows, Tom Poston, Red Buttons, and Betty White, appear in just one scene – in bed with Pfeiffer and Willis. The premise is that parents are always with you, even in the marriage bed. Obvious, but it might have been a source of fun. Here, all that talent is wasted on silliness. (And Betty White has turned her once fine comic career into an ongoing caricature of dotty old age with a big, unpleasant mouth.)
Production values are top notch and Reiner does elicit excellent performances from his cast. The film simply cannot transcend the banality of the script.