Be fair, Rob Reiner: If the characters in your film want a divorce, don't make your audience try to figure out what's wrong with their marriage.
If Harry and Sally met and things weren't working out, the result would be The Story of Us, a romantic comedy unable to maintain either half of that description.
Director Rob Reiner knows a good idea when he borrows it, either from himself, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron or Paul Mazursky. Everything in this movie feels recycled, including confessions delivered directly into the camera, locations, sidekicks and incredibly glib patterns of speech expanding a simple truth into a stand-up comedy routine.
What Reiner neglected to crib are actors who might make this familiarity work. Bruce Willis is no Billy Crystal or Tom Hanks when it comes to modern screwball comedy. Michelle Pfeiffer isn't Meg Ryan, although she tries mightily, especially in a climactic crying jag, pinching her voice into a falsetto and widening those big, blue eyes. He's too morose, she's too icy. Together, they don't exude many convincing moments of chemistry or comedy.
Willis and Pfeiffer play Ben and Katie Jordan, married for 15 years and on the verge of a divorce when the movie begins. That 15-year period seems stretched by another decade when you consider the hairstyles, clothing and musical selections Reiner uses in flashbacks to happier times. At the rate of fashion, Ben and Katie's children should be in their 20s and ready to mess up their own love lives.
Instead, the kids are adolescents shipped off to summer camp while Mom and Dad bicker and backtrack down memory lane. The Story of Us constantly barges into different time periods, yet the antagonism between Ben and Katie barely changes. Willis' wigs and Pfeiffer's hair, which gets straighter as her character ages, are often the only clues to which chapter of the marriage we're watching.
Why are they breaking up? The best guess is that Ben doesn't check his windshield washer fluid. Or stop newspaper deliveries while he whisks Katie to the same Venice restaurant where Allen and Julia Roberts dined in Everyone Says I Love You. Maybe Katie didn't like that movie. Or perhaps her job as a crossword puzzle writer intrudes on household responsibilities we barely see performed. Everything crucial to motivation in The Story of Us is offered in shorthand. If we don't see, we can't feel for the characters.
Consider their professions: Katie's work is very methodical, and Ben is a comedy writer. Is it any wonder that she's a control freak, and he doesn't take life seriously enough for Katie's taste? When reasons for divorce can be summed up by job descriptions, there isn't much at stake for the audience. Sure, there are suggestions that Ben talked flirty to a woman on the telephone, but no evidence of an affair. Katie's nature never comes across as overbearing. What's the problem?
Then, they are determined to stay together for the sake of the children, which many experts say is the worst reason to continue an unhappy marriage. With Reiner's scant attention to personal details, The Story of Us features nondescript romance leading to typical marriage followed by an irrational split. The time-hopping tactic only gives the illusion of something deeper.
When Ben and Katie aren't moping with each other, they're getting advice from friends who should have rim-shots marking the end of their sentences. Rita Wilson and Paul Reiser each have a couple of chatterbox scenes to inject some humor into the jumble. Reiner rehashes a joke shared with Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle by assessing Ben's rear end. The most gratifying scene in the film shows Ben and Katie in bed with their parents, played by Red Buttons, Jayne Meadows, Tom Poston and perennial potty-mouth Betty White. Not that it's funny, but it's nice to see so many of Carl Reiner's friends still alive.
The Story of Us
Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rita Wilson, Tim Matheson, Paul Reiser, Rob Reiner
Screenplay: Alan Zweibel, Jessie Nelson
Rating: R; profanity, sexual situations, brief nudity
Running time: 94 min.