Comparing Rob Reiner’s The Story of Us, to his 1989 classic When Harry Met Sally is unfair, but ultimately irresistible. Both films feature a likeable couple struggling with the difficulties of a relationship, both employ documentary-style interviews to break up the story, and both have a number of amusing lines about the rules of dating. Unfortunately, whereas When Harry Met Sally is acknowledged as one of the best romantic movies of the last twenty five years, The Story of Us is a film that’s oft forgotten or derided for being played out and stale.Ben and Katie Jordan (Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer) have been married for fifteen years. They’ve lived together, raised two children and, somehow over time, grown apart. After they send their kids off to summer camp, they decide to separate, at least for the summer until they can figure out whether their marriage can be saved. The film is a chronicle of that summer, with a number of illuminating flashbacks lighting the way. We see the couple struggling with their first nights of separation, those awkward phone calls, the first dinner back together, parents weekend at camp, all interspersed with scenes of their courtship and marriage.One of the biggest problems I had with The Story of Us was that so many of the flashbacks are arguments. While the scenes are realistically written and well acted, I found them progressively more depressing. Almost every time it appeared Ben and Katie might be able to reconcile their differences, some little comment or look would trigger a flashback and we’d be treated to another disagreement. Reiner and writers Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson seem so intent on showing how this marriage fell apart we don’t get a sense of why the couple got married in the first place.Leaving criticism of the script aside, Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis bring undeniable charisma to their performances. Michelle’s comedic touch is light and tender, and she brings tears to the eyes with a beautifully delivered final monologue. The supporting cast is lead by Reiner himself as Ben’s best friend Stan, and Rita Wilson as his shrill, foul-mouthed wife, and they do provide some lighter moments, despite the fact that most of Wilson’s act consists of retreads of Meg’s more celebrated moments from When Harry Met Sally.The final scene in The Story of Us echoes the ending of When Harry Met Sally with Ben and Katie talking to each other as well as the camera. (If you don’t want to know how The Story of Us ends, you should probably stop reading here). The finalé of When Harry Met Sally is, even for people like me who love the film, abrupt and somewhat contrived. But there’s no denying how life-affirming the inevitable conclusion feels. Ben and Katie Jordan get back together in a similarly abrupt fashion. But here, we’ve spent the whole movie watching them fight, so it’s much harder to accept their reconciliation.The Story of Us will never be as highly regarded as When Harry Met Sally, as it is more depressing than it should be (and not as rewarding as it could have been), but Bruce and Michelle both provide lovely, touching instances of understated power, each truthfully capturing a moment in time. Those brief seconds are so well realized they make The Story of Us worthy of watching.
Twenty four years after a release that grossed $92m domestic box office, cementing Meg Ryan as America’s sweetheart in the process, When Harry Met Sally is a victim of its own success. Watching it again on Blu-ray recently, it wasn’t just Barry Sonnenfeld’s beautiful New York visuals that leapt into sharper focus. Keen-eyed, bittersweet and sharp as a tack, director Rob Reiner and writer Nora Ephron’s film is crammed with razor sharp and caustic observations about relationships and divorce. Far from being the comforting chick flick of popular memory, When Harry Met Sally stands defiantly as one of the great modern American movies, its verbal sparring evoking memories of the battle of the sexes comedies of Hollywood’s golden age.