I don't know if any of you have seen the trailer for this one folks, but when I saw it... I just had a feeling about the movie. I instantly called Moriarty, and told him about the trailer and said, "You must see this movie, I think it's a winner." Well, the dear Professor has returned from his mission in top form. "the best Rob Reiner film this decade" says Moriarty. Well... I loved AMERICAN PRESIDENT, but after reading this review, and knowing the source... I'm sooo there. I just wish I could see it sooner than mid-October.
Hey, Head Geek...
I'm not sure how it's going to affect anyone else, but I was positively shattered tonight by Rob Reiner's wonderful new film THE STORY OF US. Easily his best film this decade, it's a delicate, uncomplicated portrait of one key moment in a troubled marriage, and it's blessed by a career-best performance from Bruce Willis as well as Michelle Pfeiffer turned up to a luminous "10" on the movie star scale. It's also an experience that hit me on a deep, personal level, one which will take me some time to recover from.
I guess I should explain some background so you can understand why the film touched me in such a profound way. Two years ago, in the summer on 1997, I was engaged to be married. This was a long-term relationship, the most significant I've had, and I was less than three months out from the actual date when my world crumbled around me. I found myself out of a home, out of my relationship, and in a free fall. It was the single most crushing experience of my adult life, and it left me questioning everything... the most fundamental things about myself came under close scrutiny.
I loved this woman with every fiber of my being, but that wasn't enough. There were things that came up between us, hurts and misunderstandings and disappointments that cut so hard that there was no retreating, no finding reconciliation. I know because we tried almost seven months later. Both of us were still floundering around, wounded, confused, and we tangled up one more time, only to hurt each other again because we had too many ghosts between us. In the end, it was too painful, and we cut off pretty much all contact. It is something that I haven't even begun to heal from, and I didn't realize how close those wounds were to the surface until this movie began to play. There are so many individual moments within the arguments between Pfeiffer and Willis here that are familiar, even frighteningly close to arguments that I had that I actually found myself wondering if I was going to have to leave for a while. Forget about BLAIR WITCH PROJECT... this is the film viewing experience that most affected me on a physical level this year.
Written by Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson, this is a film that has to have sprung at least partially from real life. Willis plays Ben, who originally met his wife Katie when he was a comedy writer for a TV show and she was an intern. Well, I have no idea how Zweibel met his wife, but he was one of the original writers for SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE during the halcyon days of 1974-1980, and he was the co-creator of IT'S GARRY SHANDLING'S SHOW. Besides professional similarities, there are just too many moments that ring too damn true in this film for it to have been completely outside Zweibel's experience.
Reality may also have intruded on the performance of Bruce Willis, and it may well have worked to his advantage. I don't profess to know anything about the reasons behind his high-profile breakup from Demi Moore, and I wouldn't presume to say that Bruce acted with her the way he acted here. Still, when you see the restaurant scene between Bruce, Rita Wilson, and Rob Reiner that ends in Bruce storming out and collapsing, destroyed, on a bench outside, I am sure that his real world informs that wrenching moment. It's egoless work, and Bruce comes off more human, more frail, more real than he ever has. This isn't some guy living some movie-star life. This is just a man, any man, having his heart torn open, his life reshaped around him, powerless to stop it.
Pfeiffer is one of those actresses that I respect more than I like. I think she does technically fine work most of the time, but with few exceptions, I've always found her to be slightly distancing as a performer. Maybe it's that otherworldly beauty of hers. Maybe I'm not able to get past that. Maybe it's that her directors are intimidated, puzzled about how to best use her. Whatever the case, it's nice to see her get it all right here, striking every note right. I believe in the passion between her and her husband, and I believe that it could create love as well as hate between them.
The unique structure of the script is one of the things that makes this stand out above the typical picture in the genre that most people will lump it into, romantic comedy. The film starts as Ben and Katie hit a wall in their marriage. Their kids are leaving for eight weeks of summer camp, and the couple decides to take that eight weeks apart, try to sort their feelings out, never telling the kids or their friends. Over the course of those eight weeks, both of them freely slide back and forth in time in their memories, and we get a dynamic, breathing portrait of a marriage. There's a great game that the family plays each night at the dinner table called, "High/Low." Each person has to list their day's high point and low point. Reiner's film ultimately plays like a 15 year game of High/Low as we see each of the steps that brought Katie and Ben together, and each of the steps that has driven them apart. A lot of the film is written with a sharp, biting wit, but most of my laughs died in my throat because of the bitter truth they were wrapped in. Anyone expecting a light confection like WHEN HARRY MET SALLY is going to be surprised.
I would go so far as to call this an "anti-romantic comedy" in the tradition of Albert Brooks' masterwork MODERN ROMANCE. That film began with a break-up and traced the arc of Brooks' character as he struggled to deal with himself and his feelings as a result. This film deals with the reality of marriage versus the idealized romantic version we are sold by movies, by pop songs, and by soap operas. This is a film that acknowledges just how hard it can be to hold a relationship together, and it asks one of the hardest questions there is: is the effort worth it? Isn't it easier to cut and run, to go find someone else to start over with? Even though that's easy, is it right? When we say, "Till death do us part," do we mean it? This film explores the idea of "for better and for worse," and it does it without an hint of pretension. That may be the key to its greatness.
For years now, I've felt that Reiner's films were marred by a reaching, a desire to be something bigger than what they were. When he began his career, he seemed to be charmed, skipping from genre to genre with a grace and an ease that made it seem like he could do anything. STAND BY ME, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, SPINAL TAP, MISERY... none of the films were even remotely alike. Then came the film that I think knocked him off-track for the decade... and, no, it's not NORTH. It's the very popular, very Oscar-nominated A FEW GOOD MEN. That film set Reiner up as an "important" filmmaker, and he stopped making films that seemed to have been written organically or from a place of joy. Instead, he started making films that felt more calculated... "big" films. He made them with a remarkable amount of craft and ability, but GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI isn't a film I'd ever watch again for pleasure. It feels like the kind of movie studios release at Oscar time, and it left me cold.
This time out, Reiner has made a film that overflows with honesty, and part of my extreme emotional reaction to the film tonight was joy at getting back one of the directors I really love and respect. By pushing these actors to do great work, Reiner also seems to have pushed himself to do great work, and he makes remarkable use of montage here. He also takes a few detours for some fine wig comedy, something I can personally never get enough of (check out Reiner's hair in the flashback to Willis and Pfeiffer's wedding -- outstanding!). The supporting cast in the film -- Paul Reiser, Rita Wilson, Tim Matheson, Julie Hagerty, Red Buttons, Jayne Meadows, Betty White (continuing her recent swearing-like-a-sailor streak in fine style here), and Reiner himself -- all do fine work, but this is really a duet, a two-character piece.
There's interludes like a trip to Venice and a magical, devastating attempt at a date between Ben and Katie, but we never stray from a simple look at these people as they total up who they are as individuals and as a couple. This is a universal story, and if this were an indie, directed by some newcomer, this would be hailed as a work of razor-sharp brilliance. I'm afraid some people might see the poster for this or hear the names of the stars and dismiss it as this season's YOU'VE GOT MAIL or SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. Perish the thought. This is a film that delves past all the movie notions of love and marriage to something that rings right. Every emotion it elicits, it earns.
Part of the film's spell is woven ably by the score that Eric Clapton and Marc Shaiman have co-written. I cannot stress strongly enough that Marc Shaiman has now earned a trip to this year's Oscars twice: once for Best Dramatic Score with Clapton for this film, and once for Best Comedy or Musical Score with Trey Parker for SOUTH PARK. Whoever is releasing the soundtrack for this film better start printing extra copies right now, because it's going to be one of this year's hottest stocking stuffers. That single, the haunting theme that plays throughout the movie, is going to be omnipresent on MTV and VH1, and with good reason. Like "Tears In Heaven," it perfectly captures a mood, an emotional state. It is simple, quiet, a perfect compliment to the subtle pleasures of this film.
I have now reached the point where I will fistfight anyone who tells me that 1999 is anything less than a high watermark for films this decade. I don't know if I think it's the best year of the decade yet, but it's sure in contention. One of the strangest things about this year is how many of the films explore the same basic theme, this disconnected dissatisfaction that so many people seem to share right now, and how well the films all manage to explore some totally different aspect of that. ELECTION, RUSHMORE, this film, the upcoming FIGHT CLUB... there's a case that could be made that the films all really start with someone in the same place. We are truly blessed to have been taken on such differing trips by these filmmakers this year.
On Tuesday, I'll be giving a heads up for the rest of the year in my RUMBLINGS FROM THE LAB, since I think there's so much worth talking about between now and January. Right now, I can tell you that September 15 (AMERICAN BEAUTY's release date) and October 15, when this film comes out, are two days you should set aside right now. You will be ecstatic that you did.