Directed by Rob Reiner

Oct 13, 1999 at 4:00 am
According to The Story of Us, men and women have different responses to life, love and sex, and this can sometimes result in conflicts and tension in a marriage. And you thought American Beauty was daring.

The "us" of the title are Ben (Bruce Willis) and Katie (Michelle Pfeiffer). He's a successful writer, making enough money for a big house in LA and vacations in Venice. She's a writer, too -- of crossword puzzles. In another movie, this career would symbolize her lack of fulfillment, but here it's her lifelong dream. This would be charming, except that this is supposed to be a big clue to her personality.

In front of their loving children (Jake Sandvig and Colleen Rennison), who aren't fooled for a minute, Ben and Katie are all smiles and solicitude. As soon as the kids disappear, however, their faces go slack, like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the atmosphere becomes poisonous. They pack the youngsters off to summer camp, then separate and spend most of the rest of the film sitting around having flashbacks.

Funny thing about those flashbacks -- they're remarkably unilluminating. We really don't learn exactly what the problem is that could produce such a big chill. Katie once walked in on Ben while he was talking with his secretary about he and Katie's love life, but other than that, the conflict between them is all generalities: He's too undisciplined and disorganized; she's too ordered and uptight. She's also lacking in spontaneity, especially sexual spontaneity.

In movie terms, we know what this means: It's her fault. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriters Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson would probably insist they were showing both sides, but the conflict inevitably plays that he's a fun-loving free spirit and she's a rigid, frigid bitch. Pfeiffer, stunning as ever, is understandably stymied by this role -- the few traits she's been given to play are unattractive. Her final, teary outburst is a Hail Mary attempt to connect in some empathic way with the audience, and the desperation behind her grotesquely exaggerated delivery is fairly obvious.

Willis comes off better, and why wouldn't he? The movie is on his side. Still, he brings more energy to the part than it really deserves. Although his vehicles haven't always served him well, he's always been an unobtrusively good actor; his beautiful performance in The Sixth Sense was a high point, not, as some have suggested, a fluke.

Zweibel, a writer on the early Saturday Night Live, wrote Gilda Radner's Roseanne Roseannadanna monologues, which may give him a karmic counterbalance to the noxious film North, which he adapted from his own novel and which Reiner also directed. Nelson wrote and directed Corrina, Corrina and had a hand in the script of Stepmom. The result of their collaboration on The Story of Us isn't dreadful to watch -- the film is snappily directed and edited, and there are moments of funny acting (Rita Wilson as Katie's friend and Reiner and Paul Reiser as Ben's pals get a few decent quips and deliver them with sass) -- but the script is all homiletic commonplaces, in quip form, and the wisdom is both stale and dubious. The best future for The Story of Us may be as a teaching tool at Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus seminars.

Opens Oct. 15.