"I'm sorry," bleats Eric Clapton in a morose acoustic-guitar ditty, "(I) Get Lost," that's repeated ad nauseam in "The Story of Us." It's a fitting refrain for the Rob Reiner-directed drama, an only moderately entertaining tale of marital discord in which love means ALWAYS having to say you're sorry.
Ben and Katie Jordan (Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer) always seem to be fighting, apologizing and making up, inhabiting a sort of alternate universe to the setting of Reiner's far more amusing 1989 hit, "When Harry Met Sally ... " Instead of spending umpteen years trying to make a love connection, Reiner's new film asks, what if Harry and Sally had found true romance right away, gotten married and then spent the rest of their lives struggling to figure out if their differences would result in a happy ending or spell d-i-v-o-r-c-e?
Screenwriters Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson have produced a script that, even in its best moments, recalls an infinitely lighter, Americanized, streamlined and not-at-all-insightful cousin of Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage." Minor disagreements and misunderstandings turn pleasant exchanges into excruciating, bitter arguments, after which each partner repeatedly retreats into painful silence. Zweibel and Nelson have apparently been there in their own relationships, and it shows. Too bad they don't shed any new light on the subject.
"The Story of Us" too often returns to these kinds of scenes. One that begins promisingly but falls particularly flat sees Ben and Katie getting along famously after a romantic dinner, cuddling together on their bed. The marrieds reminisce about their bad luck with various marital therapists; as they recall one psychologist's words of wisdom, they suddenly imagine themselves surrounded by their respective parents. His folks (Red Buttons and Betty White) and hers (Jayne Meadows and Tom Poston) offer opinions that at first amount to comic relief. The overlapping shouting grows more and more boisterous, and the entire scene turns notably nasty. It's downright annoying.
A rather conventional storyteller this time around, Reiner relies on an endless series of flashbacks and montages to carry his narrative, as well as numerous passages in which the hard-working Pfeiffer and Willis stare directly at the camera as they talk to an unseen interviewer.
The action centers on one long summer, in which the Jordans send their kids to camp and then embark on a trial separation, with Ben setting up residency at a nearby hotel and Katie staying at home.
Their time alone is given over to meaningful reminiscences. We witness their cute meeting at the office where Ben once worked as a comedy writer and Katie was employed as a secretary. Other memories replay a passionate lovemaking session in the family kitchen; the couple's wedding; the birth of their children; the deaths of their parents; various birthdays; and a recent anniversary trip to Italy.
One of Ben's pals (played by Reiner himself) is given to spouting useless advice in the form of nonsensical metaphors. Another (Paul Reiser) recommends the joy of online relationships, which he reasons don't amount to cheating. Katie's similarly clueless girlfriends, played by Rita Wilson and Julie Hagerty, appear to delight in shocking her by talking dirty in public.
Its occasional sweet moments and sharp one-liners aside, "The Story of Us" amounts to a less-than-original concept, one that's reasonably well-acted but executed without much grace or style. Its success or failure may hinge on one factor: How desperate are audiences for a film that doesn't qualify as teenybopper fare? Reiner's flick may be a ready-made date-night alternative for adults, but within its own canon it's a sorry option indeed.