Published October 1, 1999
The Story of Us by Rob Reiner attempts to do for marital difficulty what his earlier film, When Harry Met Sally does for marital concord. Once again he uses the quasi- documentary technique, which is all mixed up with flashbacks of the history of a particular relationship. But you can’t help noticing that there is a relentless shallowness to the new film’s portrayal of the squabbling Jordans, Ben (Bruce Willis) and Katie (Michelle Pfeiffer). Yes, we know that Ben has rather a persecution mania about being constantly criticized by Katie; yes, we also know that Katie feels emotionally neglected and put- upon. But we know these things only because the principals are constantly telling us about them. The trouble with the movie is that we see far too little of the reality of this marriage to be able to assess how far Ben’s and Katie’s own, inevitably self-serving characterizations of it may or may not be accurate.
The most important invisible reality is why Katie is the one pushing for a divorce. Even her rather silly friend, Rachel (Rita Wilson), can see that a middle-aged woman with two children and a husband who doesn’t sleep around or drink or beat her would be unlikely to want to get rid of him without there being another man in the picture. Yet the other man in this case, her kids’ dentist (Tim Matheson), just happens to run into her when she is already thinking of giving Ben his walking papers. That this might be her story is perfectly understandable; that it is Reiner’s doesn’t make sense. She wants to end her marriage because her husband doesn’t put windshield washer fluid in his car and because the dentist, by contrast, carries a Swiss Army knife? There’s something missing here, boss.
It is a central, and fatal, incoherency, and it is compounded by the further impetus to wordiness and dramatic laziness supplied by the documentary style — which amounts to literary water-wings for those who ought to be sinking or swimming on the basis of plot and characterization. Thus Katie says to the camera: “When is that moment in a marriage when a spoon becomes just a spoon?” This is supposed to be sort of cutesy funny because it makes no sense apart from the context of this marriage. A marriage has no such moment because it has no sacred spoon, saved from the first shared bowl of won-ton soup, as Katie and Ben have. Posing it as a philosophical question when she knows we know it is not one looks merely arch and pretentious, though it is supposed to be witty.
When both the wit and the drama, such as they are, are so completely verbal, and the characters are forever telling us the essential dramatic situation instead of showing us by their actions, we begin to feel like eavesdroppers. And those who have to listen to their neighbors screaming at each other tend not to feel like entering into their conflict emotionally. They just want them to shut up. That’s pretty much how we feel about Ben and Katie by the time we finally arrive at the point where the troubled couple decide [and here, for those of you who are determined to flout my unrecommendation and go see the thing, you may stop reading if you don’t want to know the ending] to stay together rather than splitting up, Katie’s long emotional speech explaining why does not carry the resonance that it ought to do.
“There’s a history here,” she says simply, “and histories don’t happen overnight.” That’s why “you don’t just give up.” Well, it certainly is one reason why — though I suppose it was only to be expected that she (and the film) disparage the main reason why, which is for the sake of the children. Still, the history argument, rightly understood, also contains others, including the argument for the children, and we might have had a better chance of understanding this if “history,” in the filmmakers’ view, were something more than a collection Hallmark clips of the couple’s happy memories. History, that is, is also identity. “Who we are is where we came from,” as Lucie Aubrac succinctly puts it in Claude Berri’s excellent film which bears her name.
This is actually a very important observation. But in the mouth of Michelle Pfeiffer — who cries so prettily and who knows that she cries so prettily — it sounds merely sentimental. It’s a shame, because we would like to see the idea elaborated on. For example, implicit in the freedom we so cherish, the freedom to be who we choose to be, there lies some necessity of commitment. If that freedom is only the freedom to flit from one identity to another, all it really means is the freedom not to have any real identity, and to avoid the responsibilities of choice. In the same way, when feminists talk about the “right to choose” abortion, they ignore the choice they have already made to risk pregnancy in the first place. If only the last choice counts, no choice means anything, for there can always be a next choice to negate it.
To be thus at the mercy of our present feelings is a sad prospect, but one that we all face nowadays. Reiner’s inveterate cheeriness will not suffer us to face it, however. Instead, the comely Miss Pfeiffer has a chance to sample the charms of the gentle dentist, decides she doesn’t like him better than Ben after all, and so all ends happily. As a fan of happy endings, I give the film some credit for giving some credit to the idea of marriage. True, it is careful to make sure that we could not think less of Katie if she had chosen differently. All she and the dentist get up to, so far as we know, is a little Thai cookery. But there is what we must now regard as a positive political message in her making the choice she does, and I suppose we should be grateful for small favors from the socially progressive thinkers who run Hollywood.