October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

Michelle Pfeiffer, Bruce Willis, Rob Reiner, Rita Wilson, Paul Reiser

Is there anything worse than being stuck in the company of a married couple who can’t open their mouths without taking vicious swipes at each other? Such is the punishment meted out by The Story of Us, allegedly a romantic drama.

It’s neither romantic (unless you’re turned on by verbal venting) nor a drama, since the ending is as plain as the gold wedding bands on Willis and Pfeiffer’s fingers. Rather, as gracelessly directed by Reiner (When Harry Met Sally…and The American President), the movie is nearly two hours of continual spatting by this pair, much of it at top volume. Willis portrays a sitcom writer who wants to write books; Pfeiffer constructs crossword puzzles. They live a comfortable life in sunny Los Angeles but find themselves talking divorce after two kids and 15 years of marriage. During the interminable course of the movie, each wallows in numerous flashbacks showing the way it was, remembering both the good times and the bad. Periodically, they flirt with reconciling but then end up arguing some more.

One problem with all this—besides the fact that spending time with these two characters is about as appealing as eating paste—is that their fights are over such trivial stuff. Though there’s a passing reference to differences over having a third child (he wants one, she doesn’t), the bulk of the battles have to do with Willis’s being a wild and crazy guy and Pfeiffer’s being excessively responsible. They never fight over the real hot buttons in troubled marriages: money, sex, drinking, etc. Sure, couples clash over a husband’s forgetting to put the toilet seat down, but divorces are rarely predicated on such minor marital violations.

After playing it admirably straight in The Sixth Sense, Willis here is back to coasting on his smirky, wisenheimer shtick, occasionally letting tears well up for variation. Pfeiffer just seems tense. Never do we really get a sense of what makes either of these two click or why this marriage might be worth saving. Wilson, who appears as Pfeiffer’s pal, has the movie’s best lines (“Marriage is the Jack Kevorkian of romance”), but she delivers them with all the subtlety of a steroid-crazed linebacker blitzing a quarterback. (R)

Bottom Line: Movies like this give marriage a bad name

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