By Noel Murray
OCTOBER 25, 1999: Hate fades. That insight is the sole moment of reality and clarity in The Story of Us, a marital discord comedy that otherwise is shallow as a button. The line is spoken by the film's director, Rob Reiner, who also plays the best friend of the film's star, Bruce Willis, a comedy writer undergoing a trial separation from his wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. The estranged couple is locked in a never-ending argument about whose job it is to make the marriage work, and Willis' frustration with Pfeiffer's unwillingness to let the argument go leads him to tell Reiner that his love has turned to hate. Reiner in turn cautions him that while love often fades, hate also fades. So be careful.
The Story of Us tries to build on the idea that fleeting emotions can't be trusted when a relationship is at stake. But the sentiment, though true, is hamstrung by Reiner and screenwriters Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson. The story is heavily weighted to Willis' side, so that his character comes off looking like a fun-loving guy saddled with an uptight, bitchy wife. The film seems to imply that all the couple's problems would be solved if Pfeiffer would just put out more often (which says more about the filmmakers than the marriage).
But what's unbearable about The Story of Us is the dialogue, which must have been generated by a roomful of bitter, unsuccessful stand-up comics. A character can't just have a book on Thai cooking; it has to be The Wokky World of Thai Cooking. When Willis goes looking for a new home--and settles on a fabulous villa, because the characters we're supposed to identify with in movies are always stinking rich--the real-estate agent points out an obscure acting credit for all of his new neighbors (e.g., "He did the voice of Charlie the Tuna"). The film's lowest point has family friends played by Paul Reiser and Rita Wilson launching into interminable, unfunny, unoriginal monologues about computer porn and toilet paper.
The Story of Us ends with a big reconciliation speech by Pfeiffer that, although ridiculously written, is actually moving. That's because Pfeiffer is allowed to be human for a few minutes, and the actress seizes the opportunity--she sells the audience on the virtues of sticking it out. Then the film fades. There's a message of hope in that for all of us.
Rate of failureWith the recent release of American Beauty and Three Kings--excellent films that are not immediately lovable--audiences have had back-to-back chances to evaluate what makes a great movie great. This week offers just the opposite: the chance to ponder what makes a movie a failure--artistically if not commercially--by studying two instant duds.
Random Hearts and Superstar are not terrible movies per se: Neither film is as unwatchably snide as Teaching Mrs. Tingle, nor as excruciatingly ill-conceived as Love Stinks. Nor is either film an entertaining howler like Double Jeopardy. Yet each movie unquestionably misses the target, at times broadly. And even though Random Hearts is a high-class romantic mystery and Superstar is a low-class comedy, both films blow it in the same ways:
Superstar is yet another feature-length film based on a Saturday Night Live skit. Molly Shannon reprises her creation, Mary Katherine Gallagher, a nervous Catholic schoolgirl whose small-screen fumbling is both funny and poignant--her attempts to explain her raging emotions through quotes from TV movies almost break your heart...almost. Like most SNL characters, Mary Katherine's shtick was played out by her third or fourth appearance. But the core of the concept is still solid: A shy, unpopular teenager daydreams about the day when she can stand center stage and win over her mean-spirited peers.
That idea is buried in Superstar. Shannon and director Bruce McCulloch may have wanted to remain true to the character's raison d'être, but it appears they were undone by screenwriter Steven Wayne Koren and SNL producer Lorne Michaels, who conspired to include as much unfunny humiliation and degradation as a PG-13 would allow.
Random Hearts, on the other hand, actually sustains an interesting scenario for almost an hour. Harrison Ford plays a D.C. internal affairs policeman who gets a double whammy on the same day: Not only has his wife died in a plane crash, she was having an affair with the passenger seated next to her. Unsure how to handle conflicting emotions of grief and betrayal, Ford throws himself into investigating a different kind of "internal affair."
His obsessive need to understand why his wife cheated on him puts him in conflict with her lover's wife, a congresswoman up for re-election (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) who doesn't want to confront the affair either personally or in the papers. But while trying to stop the detective work, Thomas is drawn to Ford's wounded manliness, and soon the widowed survivors are sneaking around for secret trysts.
A foreign filmmaker--Takeshi Kitano, for example--might have made much of the haunting emotions and divine providence apparent in people leading parallel lives. Random Hearts director Sydney Pollack starts in that direction (perhaps inspired by his recent acting work in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut), but about halfway through the film, the stickier feelings of regret and excitement give way to dull, dull stretches of romantic psychobabbling between the two leads. The film pulls back from the pain of loss and becomes another story of pretty professionals learning to love. Which leads us to...
It's rare to find a modern Hollywood movie that maintains a mood or style throughout; too many try to mix marketable but ill-fitting elements of drama, comedy, romance, and suspense. Random Hearts is best when it deals with the details surrounding both a crash and a cuckolding: There's a suitably eerie silence shrouding Ford's need to find some truth. But trying to extend a textbook movie romance into that world renders both the romance and the silence ineffective. As a result, the second hour of Random Hearts passes like an eternity.
As for Superstar, its tonal problems are even more egregious--which merely puts it on the shelf with nearly every comedy of the past five years. The filmmakers can't decide whether they want a feel-good picture or a crude and nasty one, so they split the middle and fill the screen with hateful characters who get theirs in the end. In the process, they neglect the story's chief appeal: the hopes and dreams of an awkward teen.
Molly Shannon struggles gamely as Mary Katherine in Superstar, but she's caught between a screenplay that keeps insisting that she make a fool of herself, her own instinct to play a meek ugly duckling, and the makeup person's bizarre need to make the character look pretty instead of homely. The film's flaws, though, are personified most in Will Ferrell, another SNL regular who can be funny but frequently falls prey to the show's current vogue for shouting shocking things. Since everything he says in Superstar is in sketch-comedy quotation marks, his role as a love interest is hard to understand.
In Random Hearts, meanwhile, Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas seem to be in a contest to see who can out-dour the other. Ford wins, if only because Thomas is allowed to smile some toward the end. His intensity fits his character at first, but when the movie becomes a love story, his frown turns the film upside down.
The main problem with both Superstar and Random Hearts is that they're gutless--they try to be crowd-pleasing instead of challenging. But if you're going to please the crowd, you have to capture its imagination in some way, and there's nothing about either film that speaks to our lives on the cusp of a new millennium. Nor is there anything timeless about them. When they turn up on someone's filmography years from now, we'll all scratch our heads and say, "Now which one was that one again...?" The worst thing about these two movies is they're not even bad enough to remember.
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