How The Story of Us should have ended
14 October 99
The Story of Us is not a very good movie. I think Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer do some fairly credible acting, but they seem to be performing the admittedly-ill-advised interview segments under protest, and the whole thing is edited like one of those "best of" episodes lame sitcoms run when they want to kill a week near the end of the season without paying the writers and actors any more for it, which totally undermines any momentum, subtlety or emotional power the performances might have had. But I see lots of bad movies, and I've seen plenty that had fewer redeeming qualities than this one.
I can't remember the last time, however, that a movie spent so much effort inexorably building up to an ending that it doesn't deliver. Did anybody involved in making this film actually watch it? Look at all the details available to exploit:
1. The parents work so hard to hide their problems from their kids, but of course the kids know the truth.
2. Not only does the existence of the kids hold their parents together, but the daughter, at least, is actively trying to hold them together.
3. Katie complains that Ben is always Harold in their relationship, and she never gets to draw with the magic purple crayon.
4. His proposal was done with a purple crayon, literally, as was her acceptance.
5. The pivotal scene of their ability to communicate was a stealth game of hangman, played under a restaurant table while they pretended to take part in a trivial conversation.
6. Their favorite restaurant is a low-brow Chinese place; her dalliance with the dentist involves a high-brow Thai cooking class.
7. During one of the scenes where the voice-over is just beginning to reach an epiphany, shortly after Ben has given up on writing his grandmother's storybook romance, he is shown feverishly working on some new idea.
8. When Ben comes over to dinner, deliberate emphasis is placed on the absence of books on "his" bedside table.
9. Ben makes a point of telling Katie that he tried to do one of her puzzles, having previously shown (or feigned) a lack of interest in her work.
10. Both the title of the film, and the interview sessions, beg for a self-referential explanation.
11. The kids are away for the whole summer, leaving plenty of time for plot developments requiring slow realizations and/or long labors.
12. The family conversation game, High-Low, consists of saying the best and worst thing that happened to you recently.
The ending in the film takes advantage of exactly none of these. There's a tearful conversation in the parking lot (which the kids, despite the fact that they're sitting twenty feet away in a car with the windows open, apparently don't hear or even notice), Ben and Katie suddenly agree to get back together, and then the movie ends, as if we're expected to have totally forgotten that we've already seen at least six apparently-sincere near-reunions that fell apart minutes later. This movie was never going to be a classic, no matter how it ended, but it would have been at least ten times better if it had paid attention to its own internal logic:
All summer, off by himself, Ben has been writing. When he comes over to pick up his shirts (a scene which should be moved to take place the night before they go pick up the kids), after they have the fight and Katie storms out of the bedroom, he pulls out the finished manuscript, which he'd meant to present to Katie with fanfare, and just leaves it on the empty bedside table. Katie finds it later, after he's left, and angrily picks it up and goes to throw it in a closet. Except there in the closet is some key piece of relationship memorabilia (the hangman pad?), which makes her pause. After some standard will-she-won't-she mock-suspense, she retrieves the manuscript and stays up all night reading it. The final line, which we see her linger on, is "Are we an us?". By morning she's exhausted and thoroughly confused, but they head off to meet the kids, still planning to take them home and announce the break-up. The daughter, however, seeing the state her mother is in, immediately figures out what's going on, and stages a desperate scene claiming to have a summer-fueled craving for the favorite family Chinese food. The parents accede. At the restaurant Ben, clowning for the kids, makes a comment about the simple greasy goodness of the food that contrasts with some pretentious crap the dentist said earlier about Thai food, and Katie flinches thoughtfully. The combination of this and being reunited with her wonderful kids finally convinces her that they should stay together. But she can't just come out and tell Ben, because they're in a noisy restaurant and trying to keep up the nothing-is-amiss facade. She searches frantically in her purse for a pen, thinking she's doing so surreptitiously, but the daughter notices and offers her, under the table, an intensely symbolic purple crayon (maybe it's one of those restaurants that gives kids paper placemats to color on?). Using the crayon and a napkin, Katie makes up a hangman puzzle, which Ben then tries to figure out while carrying on a seemingly normal conversation (made easier by the fact that the kids know he's not paying attention to them, and so are playing along to sustain the illusion that he's sustaining the illusion for them). The original hangman message was something like "I hate the Brodys", or whatever the horrible couple's names were, and if Katie just saw the hangman pad again in the closet, this will be fresh in the audience's minds, so this message, which Ben finally deciphers, is a parallel "I love the Jordans". Hope flares up in his eyes, and he flips the napkin over and does his own hangman puzzle for her, _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _. Without even making a formality of guessing, she writes in "Are we an us?", and then adds the same Yup and Nope checkboxes from his crayon-written proposal, and hands it back to him. He checks "Yup". Just then, the daughter demands that they play "High-Low". The parents go first, and give some vague answers that the kids are supposed to think are just sappy and routine, but which really reflect their renewed love. Then it's the daughter's turn, and for her High she says "Whatever you two just said on that napkin." Cue adorable group hug. And finally, as an epilogue, we go back to the interview, and the camera pulls back and reveals that Ben and Katie are on a talk show, or something, promoting the now-published book with which he won her back, which is called, of course, The Story of Us.