THERE ARE CERTAIN disadvantages to being a film critic. Seven years ago when I first got the idea I might like to do this someday, I had a notion that I would become "the people's" critic, just telling readers which movies were cool and ignoring all that artsy-fartsy stuff. Of course, something happens to you over six years of watching a movie or two a week -- you begin to recognize all the conventions, and the safer, popular films lose their sheen; grittier, daring independent fare is about all that really holds your attention anymore. Now, on many levels this is an advantage -- being able to appreciate such a wide variety of film languages has expanded my universe -- but the disadvantage is that I often find myself dissecting movies that I'm just meant to sit back and enjoy.
Most critics, judging from the reviews, found themselves dissecting "The Story of Us," Rob Reiner's newest romantic comedy, instead of enjoying it. And I'll concede to many of their points: the film rehashes to some degree Reiner's classic "When Harry Met Sally," Rita Wilson and Reiner have played their witty sidekick roles once too often, and the screenplay feels too rushed and repetitive. Yes, I noticed all those things too. But they didn't matter one bit to me -- I laughed anyway. I cried anyway.
Now, you have to understand that I'm not one to rate movies with "four hankies!" or the like. Typical "tearjerkers" might leave me a little misty-eyed, but very few movies have actually made me drop actual tears. (Only three others I remember -- "Jerry Maguire," "When a Man Loves a Woman," and "Titanic.") I suppose it's because they're so infrequent that I enjoy these moments. Or maybe it's because I'm breaking the rule that guys shouldn't cry. Or maybe because there's so much sadness in the newspapers in my community and there are so few chances to just let it all out. But it just feels cleansing somehow, like I'm renewed.
All right, back to the actual movie. Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer play a couple who have been married for 15 years and are on the verge of divorce who try separating for a summer while their kids are away at camp. This allows for a lot of relationship talk between each spouse and respective friends, a la Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher in "When Harry Met Sally." These scenes work the least well, mostly because Rob Reiner, Paul Reiser, and Rita Wilson all deliver their lines as if they were stand-up comics, when in fact they play literary agents and other such unfunny jobs. (Julie Hagerty, to her credit, comes off like a human being.) The film still manages to end up hilarious, since Willis and Pfeiffer have a brilliant comic timing down pat between them, and Willis takes some huge risks in making himself look goofy and they pay off.
What takes this picture to the next level, for me at least, is the careful dance between the two leads. Their flirtations seem like real flirtations, their arguments like real arguments, and their passion like real passion. And thanks to a nuanced script, the couple flows between each of these states almost imperceptibly, which just makes them feel like a real couple. It's heartbreaking to watch heated arguments rising out of loving banter, because you want to help them see the other person's perspective instead of just blindly attacking in retaliation. But what these scenes reveal to you, of course, is your own limited perspective of the world; they encourage you not to be so set in your ways that you can't even imagine what somebody else's experiences and personality and viewpoints might be.
The other element that captivated me in this film was a routine the family had called "high-low." At the dinner table each person would talk about their high point and low point of the day. Just for the heck of it, I've tried this out with Amanda the past few days, and it's actually quite fun. I wouldn't have necessarily guessed what she was going to say, and that helps me get to know her better. If this becomes a regular habit, then maybe out of all the movies I'll see this year the most important won't be the Oscar-winners but this one. How's that for subverting the film-critic mentality?