The Story of Us (1999)
95 min., rated R.
Grade: C +
If Harry and Sally divorced after meeting and marrying, it would turn out like "The Story of Us," director Rob Reiner's drab but forcefully acted look at marriage. Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer spat, cry, and slam doors; the marriage they depict is a war zone and it's about as much fun as sitting in on an angry therapy session. Ben and Katie Jordan are an exhausted couple who after 15 years of marriage can't find what was good about it. Once they drop their kids off at summer camp, they begin a trial separation and we're given a recount of the good, the bad, and the ugly in episodic, nonlinear flashback.
Reiner balances the unpleasant screaming matches with some light humor, but has a way of undercutting the painfully accurate observation with annoyingly forced dialogue more consistent in a sitcom. In particular, the “best friend” characters are there for comic relief, but Rita Wilson shrilly strains as she talks to Pfeiffer about orgasms, and Reiner himself gives Willis aphorisms about butts. Woody Allen had a wittier and more subtle way of wringing laughs from his marital couple stories. But one funny montage of the Jordans' various shrinks cuts to Ben and Katie, who are told to always have “six people in their bed,” with Red Buttons, Betty White, Jayne Meadows, and Tom Poston as their folks imagined on either bed side. Another nice sequence has Ben and Katie trying to reignite their relationship in Europe—all because of their shared hatred for a bothersome, overly perky American couple.
Willis and Pfeiffer are utterly convincing as this “Everycouple” and give it their mightiest. We get a sense of the couple at their happiest and surely at their worst, with occasional he-said/she-said confessionals to the camera, and they're sympathetic enough to see if they work it out or not. Though, it's too bad Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson's glib script wasn't more fully written rather than just giving us timeline montages set to Eric Clapton's lyrical score. Pfeiffer makes a final speech of joy, frustration, and sentimental cobbled together that she delivers with smiling-through-tears conviction, but it feels “written” (like an audition monologue).
Despite some wonderful scenes and the leads' compelling performances, the film paints itself into a corner with a too easy happy ending when the ugly truth would've actually been more satisfying. "The Story of Us" is Reiner's story of disappointment.