The Story of Us

Failed marriages have been the subject of many films, and while “The Story of Us” doesn’t add anything we haven’t seen before, it succeeds anyway thanks to Rob Reiner’s style of directing that is creative, yet still comfortably familiar.

Much of the movie is tension-heavy as Ben and Katie Jordan (Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer), married 15 years, find themselves on the brink of divorce. Through flashbacks and narrations, we are brought up to speed: They used to love each other, now they hate each other.

Well, it’s not that simple, but that’s about the gist of it, and herein lies one of the film’s major flaws: Ben and Katie’s reasons for growing apart are too generic. He’s spontaneous and carefree, while she’s rigid and disciplined. Such triteness (I mean, come on — it’s not a failed marriage; it’s just “The Odd Couple”) makes it hard for us to consider the situation realistically. And if we’re not suffering right along with these characters, the film’s got nothing else going for it.

(The movie even contains that classic line, used in every made-for-TV movie when a husband and wife are arguing: “Oh, what’s THAT supposed to mean?!”)

Fortunately, there are scenes of real connection, where Ben and Katie’s situation hits you square in the gut and makes you think, “My gosh, what if this were MY marriage?” Even never-married audience members can be made to feel that a breakup with their spouse would be the worst thing ever, thanks to a few well-crafted scenes and montages of happier times.

Reiner and Rita Wilson play the Jordans’ best friends, and they provide some much-needed comic relief in a film that is almost TOO tense for the first hour or so. Willis is still no great actor, but he does a good job as a mostly enraged husband who is tired of his wife being no fun anymore, and his freak-out scene in a restaurant is undeniably solid.

One would be inclined to think that, this being America, the movie will end happily. The Jordans seem so stubborn, though — almost hell-bent on breaking up, despite their differences being somewhat superficial and certainly not irreconcilable — that by the end, you could see it going either way.

Pfeiffer delivers a monologue in the last few minutes that will jerk tears among men and women alike, a speech that is at once terribly funny and achingly poignant. It is that scene that brings everything together, helping anyone who has ever been married to see themselves in one or the other of the characters.

In that sense, the genericism of the Jordans’ differences works, as it makes them universal, an Every Couple that anyone can relate to. That, ultimately, is the film’s greatest strength, helping us see that while hundreds of marriages break up every day, they are more than just statistics: There are actual people involved there.

B (1 hr. 35 min.; R, language and brief sexuality.)