Repeating himself, by design

From a cross-country road trip to a marriage on the skids, Rob Reiner's films explore the landscape of relationships.

Film

October 17, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The secret's out. Rob Reiner's been telling the same story for 14 years.

The 52-year-old Reiner, who's risen from Hollywood progeny (his father is writer-director-actor Carl Reiner) to acclaimed director with a resume that stretches from 1984's wickedly satirical "This Is Spinal Tap" to the just-released "The Story Of Us," has landed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington to jawbone about his new film.

"Us" stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis as a wedded couple of 15 years whose union is rapidly coming apart at the seams. The movie, Reiner's 11th as director, continues a story arc, he says, that goes all the way back to his second film, 1985's "The Sure Thing."

"Look at the couples in all of my movies," he explains, fixing his gaze on a reporter who's just suggested that his latest feels like "When Harry Met Sally ..." about 10 years later. "Except for perhaps `The American President,' but certainly the ones that are focused mostly on the male-female thing, like `The Sure Thing,' `When Harry Met Sally ...,' this one and, even to an extent, `A Few Good Men' -- it's always the same guy and the same girl.

The woman is always much more organized and buttoned-down and together. And the man is pretty much coloring outside the lines. ... This is just those characters with a little bit more life experience."

Mind you, Reiner isn't exactly apologizing here. And not that should he should; that continuing arc has led to some enduring box-office and critical hits from a man millions still think of as Archie Bunker's son-in-law. ("No matter what I accomplish, no matter what I do in life, I could win the Nobel Prize, the headline will say, `Meathead wins Nobel,' Reiner says with good-natured exasperation.)

"The Sure Thing," about a college student heading to California for the girl of his dreams, not realizing she's already traveling next to him, helped launch the careers of John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga.

"When Harry Met Sally..." (1989) paired Meg Ryan with Billy Crystal, added in a script from Nora Ephron and made fake orgasms part of the comedic landscape. And while squeezing the military courtroom drama "A Few Good Men" (1992) into the mold seems like something of a stretch, much of the film's dynamic does rest on the clash of styles between Tom Cruise as a freewheeling Navy lawyer and Demi Moore as his straight-arrow co-counsel. "I've been interested in men and women my whole career," Reiner explains. "As I change and grow and develop and mature, I tend to want to revisit the male-female experience with whatever new perspective I have. "When I did `The Sure Thing,' I was young, and I wrote about young love. `When Harry Met Sally ...' was more about my experiences as having been married and now being in the dating world and trying to make a go of it. ... Now I'm married with three children, and I revisit the same subject matter with a different perspective."

Any resemblance between his real life and those of his screen characters is strictly intentional, says Reiner, who collaborates closely with his screenwriters, including Ephron, Aaron Sorkin ("A Few Good Men") and Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson, who penned "The Story of Us" -- a script the trio worked on together for almost six months.

"The only way this works is if you look at your own experiences and throw [them] into the stew of the script and hope that something will resonate with other people," he says.

Reiner does believe, though, he's treading on fresh ground with "The Story of Us."

"Four-and-a-half years ago, Alan and I started talking about the idea of making a movie about marriage and what it is to be married. We talked about the idea that we'd seen a lot of movies about meeting and falling in love, and we'd seen movies about the devastation and pain of divorce. But very few -- if any, that I can recall -- movies that really just examine what it is to be married, what goes on between those happily-ever-afters and the divorce."

Lately, Reiner has become heavily involved with California's Proposition 10, which he levies a 50 cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes to fund early childhood development programs -- the idea being that much of a person's future behavior is based on his or her earliest childhood experiences. It's a subject that's been on his radar screen for about five years, but especially since 1997, when he started the I Am Your Child foundation, to raise awareness of the importance of such early-childhood intervention.

With that in mind, he has a film project in the early stages of development that will delve into the question of how violence emerges in teen-agers, and whether it can be traced back to one's experiences in early childhood.

A worthy project, perhaps, but one a little outside the niche he's created for himself. When will we next see his couple?

"I think in the next film," he says with a laugh, "they'll be suffering from empty-nest syndrome."

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