movie review by
Elizabeth Abele


(© 1999 CR Films, LLC. All rights reserved.)

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The Story of Us
As a woman who graduated from college while John Cusack was pursuing Daphne Zuniga across theater screens in Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing (1985), whose favorite novel was The Princess Bride (which would become a Rob Reiner film in 1987), and who became engaged while Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan were taking thirteen years to fall in love in When Harry Met Sally… (1989, again Reiner), I was anxious to see if Reiner could recapture the romantic magic of these movies with his new movie, The Story of Us.

Reteaming with Bruce Willis and screenwriter Alan Zweibel (both from North), Reiner tells a story that is frequently reminiscent of his earlier comedies, particularly When Harry Met Sally…: it opens with interviews of the title characters, Katie and Ben Jordan. However, this film is a more mature work that benefits from the sure comic timing of his previous films: it's witty without trying too hard to be witty. It's surprising without being over-the-top. This film is actually a "dramedy," so audience members expecting more laughs will be disappointed. Both the director and screenwriters have confidence in the strength of their characters and their situations; they have not dressed the scenes with showy cleverness or an intrusive soundtrack. The scenes are spare, focusing all attention on the mixed longing, pain, and anger of Katie and Ben.

Like When Harry Met Sally…, this film is interested in the history of a relationship. But while Sally’s chronological storytelling gave the film a leisurely pace, Story’s constant use of flashbacks—often a number of quick flashbacks in a row—gives a sense of how past moments continually crowd the present. Though the film covers about two months in present time, it feels like all fifteen years of their marriage have been packed in.

Michelle Pfeiffer’s Katie has much in common with Meg Ryan’s Sally. Katie writes crossword puzzles and, as that work implies, prefers life to be neat and within the lines. But in this film, Katie’s compulsiveness is not endearingly played for laughs: she desperately insists upon order to save her from the chaos of family life. As a result, she pushes her husband farther and farther away.

Bruce Willis’ Ben is a comedy writer, but he's unlike Billy Crystal’s Harry. While Harry was the master of one-liners, Harry's humor is gentle and whimsical. His speeches do not provide the opportunities for clever aphorisms that you’d expect from a comedy writer in a Rob Reiner film. Though we are told how unstable Ben is, we rarely see his anarchic side—outside of his inability to remember to put wiper-fluid in his car. He may be a romantic, which leads him to hope for a reconciliation despite Katie’s resolve, but we never see the wild flights of fancy that his wife’s portrait of him leads us to expect.

Ben’s normalness makes it difficult to fully understand how he has so alienated Katie, though Katie’s rigidity is evident and unappealing. The fact that the audience feels any sympathy at all for Katie is a tribute to Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance, which always shows the pain beneath her inflexibility, as well as glimmers of the girl Ben fell in love with.

Most of the comic exchanges in the film are carried by the supporting characters: Ben's friends, played by Paul Reiser and Rob Reiner; and Katie's friends, played by Rita Wilson and Julie Hagerty. Rita Wilson, in particular, is given a chance to shine as Katie’s best friend and Rob Reiner’s wife. She plays the most complex supporting character, and she gets all of the movie's best lines. The supporting characters rarely appear in mixed company—except for one dinner scene with the Wilson/Reiner couple and Ben—so that we never get to see these friends interact with Katie and Ben as a couple. In these oases of comedy, Ben and Katie act as straight-men for their clever friends’ riffs on marriage.

The film follows Katie and Ben’s separation while their children are away at summer camp, again focusing on the relationship of the "us" while keeping the supporting characters largely out of the boxing ring. The scenes with their kids, Josh and Erin, show Katie and Ben bravely putting happy faces over their conflict, which can’t help but break through from time to time. "Fighting has become the condition, rather than the exception" of their lives, and as they narrate during the interviews or remember during flashbacks, the many fight scenes and the missed opportunities become overwhelming.

Pain is the condition of this film, with comedy as the exception, and it can become oppressive. At the same time, the film’s confidence to stay in this discomfort, the discomfort that is overwhelming Katie and Ben as it overwhelms the audience, is what makes the film feel honest and brave. Bruce Willis has followed his subtle performance in The Sixth Sense with another quiet, multi-layered performance that of course depends on his wry smile and charm but also requires raw and powerful exchanges with his costar. The screaming matches between Katie and Ben never become mere histrionic showdowns but appear as life-and-death struggles. Even at their most angry, their longing for each other is evident.

Eric Clapton’s guitar soundtrack, used sparingly, compliments without embellishing these strong performances. His haunting "I Get Lost Inside Your Tears" accompanies the opening titles, and is used in snippets throughout the film.

The strength of the film is in its subtle moments: Katie and Ben finding household excuses to call each other or Katie's flirtation with a divorced orthodontist (Tim Matheson). However, some of the more extreme moments fall a bit flat. Overall, The Story of Us showcases the best work of its collaborators.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]