Blunt Force Trauma
Framed and narrated like a bedtime story, Rumor Has It… concerns the romantic life of a young woman. As obit writer and aspiring journalist Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston) tells it, The Graduate, both novel and 1967 movie, is rumored to have its basis in a Pasadena neighborhood, among wealthy folks with penchants for alcohol and adultery, seeking gossipy distractions from their daily indignities.
As the movie begins, Sarah is searching for her own distraction. She’s just agreed to marry her lawyer boyfriend Jeff (Mark Ruffalo), whom she likes fine. They’re on their way from New York to Pasadena in order to watch her little sister Annie (Mena Suvari) be married to her sweetly dorky tennis partner, Scott (Steve Sandvoss). Feeling overwhelmed, Sarah begins making one bad decision after another, beginning with her reluctance to take off her engagement ring without telling her fiancé. When Jeff notices the absence, she doesn’t have a decent explanation, only that her fingers swell up on planes, and oh, since that doesn’t work, she’s scared, really scared.
Perhaps mystified, or hoping to remind himself why he’s marrying this self-absorbed girl, the infinitely patient Jeff agrees to be distracted himself, by a trip to the plane’s bathroom for sex. Inside, they fumble and grunt and argue, until Sarah begins to sob, regretting that she’s been a bad big sister, and more typically selfishly, that her persistent indecision is a function of her feeling that “I don’t fit in with them. I don’t fit with anybody.” Though Jeff reassures her that she “fits” with him, you know this is only because he’s the romantic lead.
If only the movie had been about Jeff, then you might have bypassed the dilapidated plot that follows. Sarah arrives at her dad Earl’s (Richard Jenkins) place (mom has conveniently died some years ago) in pursuit of explanation. As she doesn’t really have a starting point of a question at first, she grabs the first one that pops up, in the form of references to that hoary business about The Graduate. Now she’s on a mission, determined to get her chain-smoking, drearily haughty grandmother, Katherine Richelieu (Shirley MacLaine), to admit she slept with the young man whom Sarah believes also spent a weekend in Mexico with her mother on the weekend before her wedding to Earl. Or, as Katherine presents her best guess to her grandmother, “You’re Anne Bancroft!”
For a couple of minutes, such slippage between movie myths and mythic divas looks like it might turn charming, or maybe clever. Katherine’s a bitch and MacLaine enjoys it (“You want more out of life,” she snaps at whiny Sarah, “Get in line, kid”). But the film, which director Rob Reiner reportedly took over from writer Ted Griffin after production started, clunks along without seeming to realize its own potential. That’s not to say this potential is obvious: turning Ben Braddock’s dilemma-making irresolution around so the girl who might be his daughter suffers similarly isn’t exactly innovative. Maybe in someone’s mind, the gender inversion spoke to changing cultural parameters. But here it only looks like steps back. Potential, if it exists, has to do with the inevitable reunion of Katherine and Ben’s original, here named Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner).
Thinking that her mother conceived her with Beau during that weekend, Sarah, following Annie’s wedding and with Jeff’s blessing (did I mention that he’s infinitely patient?) tracks down the man who might be her dad at an internet conference where he’s a prestigious speaker, owing to the fact that he’s a billionaire and renowned business genius in the field (though none of this is evident in the snatch of speech Sarah hears (“The internet revolution: it isn’t coming, it has arrived”).
Still, she approaches him in hopes of discovering her own truth, only to be informed that he can’t possibly be her dad because of a youthful soccer accident. “Blunt force trauma,” she mutters repeatedly, wandering off from the conversation she takes to be devastating. Now she feels she has no reason to feel so “different” from the rest of her family, and especially, her sensible, stable father, whom Jeff apparently resembles, being so safe, smart, and forgiving and all. Imagining that her mother was unhappy in this secure situation, as opposed to stimulated by Beau, a.k.a. Mexican getaway guy, Sarah begins to regret everything she hasn’t even experienced yet.
Even now, Rumor Has It… isn’t done pitching wrenches into Sarah’s circular cogitations. Believing that Beau can’t be her dad, she falls instantly into a drunken clinch, waking the next morning at his northern Californian mansion, wondering whether she should answer Jeff’s cell phone, which she’s mistakenly tucked into her bag. This quick spill into a fidelity predicament (not to mention a recurring doubt about her parentage: yucky) doesn’t make much sense, and, before you can say Indecent Proposal, Sarah’s wondering if maybe a jet-setting future with Beau wouldn’t be more exciting than writing obits for the Times.
The film perks up briefly when Beau—proclaiming that he’s enchanted by his single “pretty spectacular” night with Sarah—pursues her to Pasadena. Here he has a little sidewalk encounter with Katherine. Unimaginatively accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti Western theme, she stalks out to confront her erstwhile lover, and then, pfft. She’s not Anne Bancroft after all.