Following "Ghosts of Mississippi," his disappointing foray into political drama, Rob Reiner returns to themes closer to home in "The Story of Us," a seriocomic anatomy of a 15-year marriage between two bright and attractive partners, credibly played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis. More somber than humorous, tale is burdened by a complicated time scheme of flashbacks and flashforwards that will prevent audiences from being involved in -- and entertained by -- the endless bickering and occasional reconciliations of the duo.

Following “Ghosts of Mississippi,” his disappointing foray into political drama, Rob Reiner returns to themes closer to home in “The Story of Us,” a seriocomic anatomy of a 15-year marriage between two bright and attractive partners, credibly played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis. More somber than humorous, tale is burdened by a complicated time scheme of flashbacks and flashforwards that will prevent audiences from being involved in — and entertained by — the endless bickering and occasional reconciliations of the duo. It’s doubtful that Willis’ B.O. clout will help the commercial prospects of a film that suffers from repetitive ideas and images. Opening in a crowded and competitive marketplace, Universal release should have a modest opening and brief theatrical run, with a brighter future in ancillary venues and on the small screen.

The filmmakers seem to believe they are conveying deep emotional and universal truths about how to survive a long-enduring marriage beyond the initial phases of romantic love and passion. But as conceived by scripters Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson, this small film is merely tolerable. Leads are likable but can elevate only to a point the uneven material, which ranges from sharply observed scenes to downright embarrassing and schmaltzy ones.

Yarn begins with writer Ben Jordan (Willis) sitting on a sofa and declaring to the camera his philosophy of life — his firm belief in staying together and happy endings. This is contrasted with a tense dinner scene in which Ben, his wife Katie (Pfeiffer) and their two children discuss the highs and lows of their days, a routine that serves as a motif for the picture.

About to celebrate their 15th anniversary, the Jordans have grown apart; their chief dilemma seems to be how to maintain the facade of a unified family for their children. Rather conveniently, the script arranges for the kids to be sent to summer camp so that their parents can understand what has gone wrong — specifically, to wrestle with the paradox of how the very qualities that made them fall in love in the first place are now pulling them apart.

Emotionally drained by their frustrating, sexless relationship, they attempt a trial separation, and each retreats in silence to his/her corner: Katie stays in the house and Ben moves to a nearby hotel. Story unfolds as a series of brief reflections on their shared history, from their first, charming meeting in an office to the present, when each is in bed waiting for the other to call.

Through the duo’s voiceover narration, we learn that Katie has become the “designated driver” of the marriage based on her need for stability and order. Her career as a designer of crossword puzzles was motivated by her need to have answers to life’s “little questions.” In contrast, Ben is a writer blessed with imagination, spontaneity and playfulness, which complement Katie’s rationality and efficiency.

The ins and outs of the marriage, and the difficulties of staying together, are not related in chronological order, and for a while, it’s fun to deduce the era of a scene by the couple’s clothes and hairdos. There are brief snippets of their wedding, sex on the kitchen table, babies, birthdays, New Year’s and so on.

Problem is that the stylistic devices used, which recall early Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky, get increasingly tedious, disrupting not only the sequence of events but also squelching audience sympathy for the protagonists. There are too many voiceovers and flashbacks, and all the film’s elements are arranged symmetrically or in parallels: If Ben is meeting his buddies in a diner, the next scene will show Katie and her friends in a restaurant.

Every once in a while Reiner’s TV-actor background sneaks into the film, as in a poorly orchestrated montage of the various shrinks the couple consulted, each more eccentric than the last. At one point, the Jordans are told that when they have sex, there are actually six people in their bed: themselves, Ben’s folks (Red Buttons and Betty White) and Katie’s (Jayne Meadows and Tom Poston). Sure enough, Reiner clutters their bed with six people engaged in overlapping dialogue. Just when the story becomes dreary, the film, for good measure, sends the couple to Venice for romantic renewal, and the next sequence becomes a tourist travelogue.

The novelty of “The Story of Us” may be its realistic attention to the details that lead to such marital trauma, but that doesn’t necessarily make for an involving or entertaining picture. With the exception of the ending, all the interesting ideas are exposed in the first two reels.

In its good moments, pic feels like an American version of the kind of film that almost every French director has made, from Sautet and Rohmer to Truffaut and Chabrol. Unlike such Gallic works, “The Story of Us,” like its title, is literal, earnest and therapeutic. The tale’s big lessons — that marriage consists of both the magical and challenging times, and that relationships fall apart as a result of the day-to-day grind, not the big, momentous events — should not surprise any mature viewer.

Drawing on her beauty and dramatic range, Pfeiffer delivers a compelling performance, though her big monologue at the end is not as effective as it should be. In a role reversal, as a man who’s more emotionally demonstrative than his wife, Willis is also good.

Most of the secondary characters are one-dimensional, used for comic relief, including Reiner as a man who speaks in metaphorical terms; Rita Wilson, cast against type as loud, foul-mouthed and opinionated; and Tim Matheson, as a sensitive divorced man who takes cooking lessons.

Production values are proficient but unexceptional, including the visuals of ace lenser Michael Chapman, which don’t measure up to his work for Scorsese and others. A melodic Eric Clapton song frames the film, lending it the proper sweet-and-sour tone.

The Story of Us

Production

A Universal release of a Castle Rock Entertainment presentation. Produced by Rob Reiner, Alan Zweibel, Jessie Nelson. Executive producers, Jeffrey Stott, Frank Capra III. Directed by Rob Reiner. Screenplay, Alan Zweibel, Jessie Nelson.

With

Ben Jordan - Bruce Willis Katie Jordan - Michelle Pfeiffer Marty - Tim Matheson Stan - Rob Reiner Rachel - Rita Wilson Dave - Paul Reiser Liza - Julie Hagerty Erin at 10 - Colleen Rennison Josh at 12 - Jake Sandvig Dot - Jayne Meadows Harry Tom Poston Lillian - Betty White Arnie - Red Buttons
Camera (Deluxe color), Michael Chapman; editors, Robert Leighton, Alan Edward Bell; music, Eric Clapton with Mark Shaiman; production designer, Lilly Kilvert; art directors, Chris Burian-Mohr, Jess Gonchor, Francesco Chianese (Italy); set designers, John Perry Goldsmith, Anthony D. Parrillo; supervising set decorator, Gretchen Rau; set decorators, Sarah Jackson Burt, Kathy Lucas, Francesca Caccavale (Italy); costume designer, Shay Cunliffe; makeup, Michael Germain; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Robert Eber; associate producer, Tammy Glover; assistant director, Frank Capra III; casting, Jane Jenkins. Reviewed at Universal Studios, Universal City, Oct. 7, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 94 MIN.

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