This Looks Terrible! The Story of Us (1999)
Sometimes you have an idea that seems cute and quirky in the abstract. But then you commit to it and you have to execute the damn thing, and suddenly what previously felt sassy and fun begins to feel like a very bad decision. That was me and my unwise choice to pair for a Happy Cast episode Scalding Hot Take Us with Rob Reiner’s oppressively caucasian The Story of Us on account of their titles.
I chuckled at the connection between these two very different movies, one great and timely and unapologetically black, the other terrible, pointless and offensively white but then I started to watch The Story of Us and felt trapped. Why had I committed to watching this atrocity? I mean, sure I watch terrible movies everyday but for some reason Rob Reiner’s movie got to me in a way other bad movies don’t.
On paper at least, The Story of Us is exactly the kind of movie that Hollywood should be making more of. It’s a movie about relationships. It’s a movie about people. It’s a movie about conversations and emotions and the challenges and joys of marriage and children and divorce. Reduced to its broad outlines, The Story of Us is a goddamn French art film, one of those intense dramas about middle aged married couples yelling at each other.
Unfortunately, The Story of Us is a movie about obnoxious people awkwardly dispensing stilted banter and overwritten quips about “marriage being the Jack Kervorkian of romance.”
The Story of Us brings together the trio of Bruce Willis, screenwriter Alan Zweibel (an early Saturday Night Live writer who co-created It’s Garry Shandling’s Show) and director Rob Reiner, who had so little success with 1994’s North that they figured that they’d make like Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier and do it again with the 1999 relationship comedy drama The Story of Us.
North famously inspired Roger Ebert to declare that he hated, hated, hated, hated the movie, It didn’t fare much better with other critics.
The Story of Us didn’t do much better with critics or audience. It was yet another sorry nadir for Reiner, who roared out o the gate as the director of beloved modern classics like This is Spinal Tap, Princess Bride and Misery then hit a brutal rough patch with North and this and a couple of other real stinkeroos like Ghosts of Mississippi and never really recovered.
Reiner has directed some great movies but boy is his touch off here. The Story of Us is a big-screen sitcom with a whiny streak and a yelling problem about Ben Jordan (Bruce Willis), a writer and free spirited man-child stressfully married to Katie (Michelle Pfeiffer), a worrier and planner and the mother of his two annoying children Erin (Colleen Rennison) and Josh (Jake Sandvig).
Katie and Ben periodically address us directly in documentary-style talking head sequences in the style of Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally and Willis’ The Return of Bruno. In effectiveness, these sequences fall much closer to the Return of Bruno side of the scale.
The Story of Us jumps around in time House of Pain style as its white as the driven snow couple go from infatuation to disillusionment, from meeting cute and falling for each other to contemplating divorce and splitting up their shitty, shitty family and ending their awful marriage.
In between fights, Katie and Ben hang out with their buddies/confidantes. Ben has agent Dave (an uncredited Paul Reiser) and Stan (Rob Reiner). Sorry but I don’t think Meathead, Moonlighting and Mad About You would hang out anywhere outside The Battle of the Network Stars. The three have a powerful anti-chemistry. They’re impossible to buy as friends. Of course it does not help that Reiner’s big moment is a monologue about how, actually, butts don’t exist and what we think of as the butt is just the top of our legs.
Willis has been so typecast as a cop that when I see him play people not involved in law enforcement in movies like this I worry about all the fictional criminals that are getting away because he’s wasting his time pretending to be a writer. Just think of all the drug kingpins, Russian mobsters and terrorists who are running amok while Bruce Willis goes an entire film without killing even a single bad guy. Willis isn’t just badly miscast; taking his gun away from him, even for a film, threatens to upset the delicate balance of fictional good and evil that keeps the universe in harmony.
Willis can be a very good actor in the right role. But when he is checked out, his contempt for the material is palpable. Usually Willis sleepwalks his way through interchangeable action roles where the only thing that ever really changes is his badge number. So he at least deserves credit, I suppose, for sucking in a markedly different fashion than he usually does here.
Ben’s emotional journey from lovable scamp to older, wiser, sadder middle-aged man staring down divorce is completely unsatisfying. His follicular journey, on the other hand, is a wonder to behold. The only overachieving element of the film is the masterful work of a wig-maker who takes our annoying protagonist from college to middle age and all parts in between with great care and artistry. Ben’s character may not have much of a character arc, but his disappearing hair takes us on quite a journey.
The Story of Us lives and dies on chemistry. This is a movie obnoxiously laser-focused on one crappy relationship, so it’s essential that we believe in that relationship. Chemistry is of the utmost importance and chemistry is what Willis and Pfeiffer desperately lack. It’s easy to believe that these people dislike each other because we dislike them. It’s harder to believe that they ever fell in love or still care for each other on any level.
In one of this loathsome film’s most odious scenes, our yuppie couple goes to Italy in a last ditch attempt to save their failing marriage and fall back in love again and are set upon by the Kirbys (Bill Kirchenbauer and Lucy Webb) an American couple that has the audacity to be happy and cheerful and in love despite being chubby and dopey and oblivious to Katie and Ben’s contempt for them.
Our squabbling spouses briefly bond over their contempt for these quintessential ugly Americans whom they look down upon. The overwhelming air of condescension makes the whole sequence sad and sordid instead of funny. It makes entirely too much sense that the only way these tiresome souls could get sexually aroused is by being terrible to other people, by luxuriating in a false sense of superiority over crass, sausage-fingered middle-American types.
Will they break up? Will they stay together? Who the fuck cares? For added middle-aged whiteness, Eric Clapton contributed songs that suit the film’s sleepy, shambling, lazy pace all too snugly.
The Story of Us only lasts 96 minutes, but 96 screamingly non-cinematic, anti-cinematic minutes of awful white people yelling at each other can feel like an eternity.
Reiner’s over-written misfire would look abysmal under any circumstances. It looks even more dire when compared to Peele’s Us. Us is a film of rare vision, audacity and accomplishment. The Story of Us has admirable ambitions to be a movie about people and relationships yet fails in every conceivable way. If this is the kinder, gentler, more sensitive Willis, give me Die Hard 8 any day.
Peele made headlines and sparked anger and controversy when he very reasonably said that he couldn’t see himself casting a white man as the lead in one of his movies because he’d seen that movie way too many times before. We all have. Sometimes that movie is called The Story of Us.
The unbearable whiteness of Reiner’s navel-gazing exercise in crowd-displeasing domestic discord makes Peele’s point more convincingly than any think-piece about the importance of diversity and the exhausted nature of white narratives onscreen possibly could.
I make my living suffering through stuff like The Story of Us so if you would be kind enough to consider pledging over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace it would be very much appreciated.
and, of course, I sure would dig it you would also consider pledging to my Weird Accordion to Al Kickstarter over at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/weirdaccordiontoal/make-the-weird-accordion-to-al-book-a-ridiculous-r?ref=section-music-featured-project-list-recommendations