Here’s a terrifying thought: each of the major turning points in your life is reducible to the hairstyle you’re wearing at the time. Your graduation, your first job, your marriage, your dead goldfish, your vacation in Italy: all of it is mucked up when filtered through those misty-water-colored memory glasses. If it sounds awful in theory, it’s even worse to see it acted out, on a wide screen with lots of close-ups of teary, badly-coifed movie stars backed by a treacly Eric Clapton guitar score.
This is the experience delivered by Rob Reiner’s The Story of Us, a movie that too often feels like an unclever follow-up to When Harry Met Sally… (which, I admit, never seemed very clever to me). This time the couple in perpetual trouble is Ben (Bruce Willis in his just-please-take-me-seriously mode) and Katey (Michelle Pfeiffer). We meet them when they’ve been married for fifteen years and as they’re talking separately to the camera, like those fretful young people do in MTV’s The Real World. He writes novels and she writes crossword puzzles. She’s unhappy that he’s become so irresponsible, he’s despondent because she’s become so unspontaneous. He says tomato and, well, can this marriage be saved?
While you might intuit that it will be saved Rob Reiner doesn’t traffic in tragedy, after all watching it be saved is mostly annoying. For one thing, there’s those hair-dos. And for another, she can’t possibly leave Ben because her only possible other suitor is a divorced dentist played by Tim Matheson, whom you’ll remember as the fake Mr. Brady in A Very Brady Sequel.
And then there’s the actual plot. You see the moments in their relationship that matter most to each principal (thankfully, you only see these from one perspective, sparing you any potential he said-she said arguments). He remembers when they met he was a beginning journalist and she was an office temp; he teased her by tossing paper clips, she put on a pith helmet; he had long hair, she had frizzy. She remembers when she gave him a plastic spoon she had saved from their first dinner out at a Chinese restaurant, then wonders aloud, “When is that moment in a marriage when a spoon becomes just a spoon?’‘
(This was the moment when the friend sitting in front of me normally a much more forgiving viewer than I turned around and made a gagging face, and it wasn’t even ten minutes into the film).
The story of them proceeds as you might expect. Their two children a Josh (Jake Sandvig) and Erin (Colleen Rennison) are suspicious that things aren’t going well, but Katey and Ben decide to keep what seems to be their imminent break-up a secret until said children return from summer camp. This means that even though Ben moves out as soon as the kids get on the bus, the couple must perform marital okayness when they visit the camp for Parents’ Day. Of course, this makes for some discomfort and the kind of humor premised on such discomfort (as in, ohmigosh! what will they do when Erin surprises them with a night visit to their cabin and notices that the couch is made up?)
Both Ben and Katey have same-gender pals to whom they lament repeatedly: for her, the super-sympathetic Rachel (played by perpetual best friend Rita Wilson) and dullsville Liza (Julie Hagerty), and for him, Rachel’s buttinsky husband Stan (Reiner) and Ben’s egocentric agent (Paul Reiser). Because they have these shoulders to cry on, the solo-confessions seem superfluous: everyone is annoyingly articulate in that sit-commy way that characters in contemporary relationship movies tend to be. For instance, Rachel advises Katey concerning sex during emotional difficulties: the penis is “a battering ram’’ and the vagina, when nervous, can’t “receive” it. Or Ben spends time with Stan, who asserts, by way of illustrating the “grayness” of life, that Ben stare at his buttocks while he intones, “In reality, there is no ass, only the continuation of my legs.”
In between whining to their friends, remembering sexual ecstasies on the kitchen counter, and confessing to the camera, Ben and Katey do interact, mostly arguing and attempting to make up. After several weeks apart, they spend an excruciating few minutes in bed, where they reminisce about the pathetically ineffective couples’ therapists they’ve consulted, and then think about having sex. Within seconds they’re joined as we get a glimpse inside their Woody-Allenized heads by their parents (Betty White, Red Buttons, Jayne Meadows, and Tom Poston, all looking as horrified by their roles as you feel about them), instructing them on what to say and how to behave. Needless to say, Ben and Katey revert to form (sniping and not listening) and their hopes for the evening are dashed.
The movie’s basic formula, for all its hip smugness and 90s-style egalitarian sorrow, actually seems more like a forties weepie than anything else. The script by Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson (the latter responsible for Stepmom, i.e., I could rest my case here) would suit someone like Irene Dunne, because she’s tough enough (beneath her excellent and perfectly calibrated tears) to withstand the pummeling such generic stories inflict. While Katey does look like a survivor, Ben is most certainly not: he just gets angrier and sadder (to the point that he riverdances to entertain his kids), and you start imagining that he’ll end up in the Fight Club down the street if she doesn’t step up to rescue him.
That it’s Ben who needs the rescuing is not without its cultural significance and class-related resonance. Katey can afford to move on, unlike Irene Dunne (who usually moved on anyway, but without a job where she could work at home on her computer): you see her taking cooking classes, book shopping, anticipating what she’ll be doing with the kids home. He sits in his apartment and hates himself and her, stews over her date, wants it to be “like it was” (he uses that damn pith helmet as the sign of her lost sense of “fun”). Katey knows it can’t like that, but she’s willing, eventually, to work on it.
Unfortunately, the film never addresses the possibility of its specifically gendered melodrama, never allows that it might be about the ongoing dislocations of a straight-white-middle-class-male psyche, never observes either of its protagonists with imaginative or thoughtful, serious or even comic insight. Instead, it goes glib.