Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Life as a montage
This is the tenth in my Double Jeopardy series, in which I'm revisiting films that got high grades from me, but not from most other people. I want to see who's right and who's wrong. The series runs on Tuesdays.
I have so many entry points for discussing Rob Reiner's The Story of Us that I don't really know where to begin. So, apologies in advance if this becomes a bit disorganized.
Let's start by addressing something obvious, for those of you who read my sidebar features closely. That's not a formatting error you see there -- The Story of Us is, in fact, the last two movies I've most recently revisited. I watched it Sunday afternoon by myself while my wife was taking a nap, and then when she awoke -- perfectly timed to the end credits -- I felt really disappointed that I hadn't made a stronger case to have her watch it with me. So I told her I would watch it again, if she was interested. She was, so we did, about four hours later. She probably figured, if I'm willing to see a movie twice in one day, it's probably worth her seeing it once.
That should take away some of the suspense about whether I still like Reiner's film, a decade after I first saw it. Or was it more like nine years after I second saw it? Only after finishing what turned out to be my third viewing did I realize I had inadvertently broken the rules of my own Double Jeopardy series. This series was supposed to be comprised of films I've seen only once before, but I had forgotten until Sunday afternoon that I had already submitted The Story of Us to a form of double jeopardy, all the way back in 2001. (Which made this a triple jeopardy, and the eventual fourth viewing the first time the movie was being watched purely for pleasure since my first viewing.) The movie came out in 1999, and I probably caught it on video in 2000. I really liked it, but I also knew I was in the minority. So when I got the chance to review The Story of Us in 2001, I made myself watch it again, just to see if I might have been overcome by a temporary inability to judge the quality of films.
Nope. Still liked it. But then I did something I now very much regret -- I wrote a review that was positive, but hedged its bets by being lukewarm and out-and-out critical in a couple spots as well. See, the site I write for had given the film a star rating before anyone wrote a review -- a common practice based on the general critical consensus about a film. That star rating was two out of five. It's always acceptable to diverge from the star rating -- especially if you are writing something that's more positive, since the reviews are syndicated on sites that sell DVDs. But at that time, I was fairly new at this, and thought that I had to make my positive review reflect the critical consensus evident in those two stars. So instead of writing the 3.5-star review I wanted to write, I wrote one that was probably closer to 2.5 stars.
If I wrote a review of The Story of Us today, I might actually give it four stars. And I almost wish I could take back that re-ranking of the movie I did on Flickchart, which I wrote about here. (If you are keeping track, this is my third entry point to discussing the film.) To sum up what I wrote ten days ago, I temporarily lost control of a sequence of duels on Flickchart, and the eventual end result was that The Story of Us jumped all the way up to my 25th favorite film of all time. Wanting to correct the error, I removed it from my seen movies and started re-ranking it from scratch. Needless to say, #25 is still too high for it, but after my two screenings on Sunday, I feel like I would be very comfortable having it in my top several hundred movies.
So why do I like this movie so much more than anyone else? Well, I'll tell you.
The movie was referred to sarcastically at the time as When Harry Broke Up With Sally. It stars Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer as a couple married for 15 years, who are taking advantage of having their son and daughter away at camp for the summer, to try out a separation that may ultimately lead to divorce. The movie begins a few days before the kids leave for camp, and ends when they return. In between, Ben and Katie Jordan do their best to live their lives apart, with the inevitable moments together -- some of which are positive, some of which remind them why they're no longer suited to be together. The movie progresses along during their present tense of that summer, but it also flashes back to the memories they're cataloguing of 15 years of marriage. These memories are triggered by conversations they have with their friends (a well-cast group of Reiner, Rita Wilson, Paul Reiser and Julie Hagerty), as well as mundane things that happen in everyday life.
And here's where the movie impresses me immensely on a technical level. I am a person who applauds when someone really "commits" -- when an artist or a performer gives it his/her all, beyond the call of duty, to produce the desired artistic outcome. And the filmmaking team behind The Story of Us really commit to showing us Ben and Katie's marriage. I wish I had gone back and counted, but to give us as many snippets of their life together as possible, the costume and makeup departments give Willis and Pfeiffer dozens of different hairstyles and wardrobes, and Reiner shoots them in dozens of different locations (including an on-location shoot in Venice, Italy -- something he notably did not do when he hopped continents on green screens for The Bucket List). What I find so impressive about this is that these hairstyles and wardrobes do not usually appear in entire scenes -- they are often quick flashes in montages, seen by the viewer for only a second or two. Most films cannot afford such complicated setups for such little overt narrative payoff. Like, a whole wedding between Ben and Katie, in which Reiner (as the best man) somehow really looks 20 years younger, just for five seconds of screen time? The budgetary math doesn't add up.
Which is why I'm trying to give this film the ink it deserves now, that it never got then. I appreciate every hair on Pfeiffer's head that you crimped with a crimping iron, every time you applied that long-haired toupee on the bald Willis. And I'm sorry more people didn't. The most affecting montage comes near the climax of the movie, with Mason Williams' "Classical Gas" playing as you see each child born, each child's pet die, each time Ben or Katie says I love you, each time Ben or Katie says I hate you. And everything else in between.
What's great also is how the memories are balanced within the overall plot. I'd almost call this a structurally perfect script. It steps away from the present tense for the perfect amount of time, every time, and supplies the memories we need at just the right moment to contextualize future events in the plot. It's downright masterful -- special props to Jessie Nelson and Alan Zweibel, who share the screenwriting credit.
And speaking of the writing ... one of the most common misconceptions about this film, I assume, is that it's depressing. Yes, there's a lot of squabbling, and yes, it's about a couple considering divorce. But what I was really amazed at was the number of times I laughed at the clever writing. The supporting characters get a lot of the funniest lines, and thank God they're there. Wilson is in fine form, Reiner seems comfortable and affable, and Reiser is wickedly funny. Reiner knows that this movie can't be glum, or else it won't fit into the marketing category of a romantic comedy. The Story of Us gives romantic comedies a good name by being about something a lot more than most of them are about.
Remember when I said things might get disorganized here? That's what happens when you are writing about something you feel really passionate about.
And I think there's an additional reason I felt so passionate about this film this time around. Unlike the first two times I saw it, I am now married with a partner I love, on the precipice of having children. (Literally -- the baby will probably come next week.) What I appreciated in the abstract before was something that I can now appreciate more concretely -- that marriage is a marathon with peaks and valleys, times when you will love the other person and times when you (only temporarily, you hope) will hate them. I am fortunate to say that I've spent 2.5 years of marriage in 95% bliss. But we haven't nearly gotten to the hard part, and movies like The Story of Us make you appreciate what can happen to make otherwise blissful marriages hard. The movie expertly documents Ben and Katie as they grow from feckless twentysomethings to burdened fortysomethings, yet their character traits continue on a throughline that never makes you doubt that these are the same people, just aged 15 years. Willis and Pfeiffer deserve incredible credit for this in terms of their acting -- Pfeiffer has an amazing monologue near the end of this movie that's just heartbreaking -- but it's the whole experience that's been created for us that really makes this movie the complete package. We know the performances are strong, but what these characters are saying is what makes them sing -- topics that are unobtrusively and humorously discussed are as diverse as mortality, fidelity, the influence of in-laws on a marriage, the tension between the need to be responsible and the need to have fun, and whether an ass is really an ass, or just the fatty tops of your legs.
The Story of Us could be the story of anybody, and it's incredibly enriching, whether you're a parent, a child, a husband, a wife, or none of the above. You'll laugh and you might cry ... I don't mind tell you I did.
During both of Sunday's viewings.
And that's really saying something.
Double Jeopardy Verdict, The Story of Us: An unjustly panned film that just gets more observant and more nuanced the older you get and the more life experiences you have.