Romance is .just a rumor in 'Rumor Has It'

Movie Review

December 25, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A producer friend has a personal insult for a film so thin it doesn't seem to exist: He calls it "a rumor." He'll find Rumor Has It an apt title. There's some sass to the set-up: what if a confused woman named Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston) discovered that her late mother and her salty, still-kicking grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) were the real-life models for Elaine and Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate? And what if she searched for "Benjamin Braddock," who bedded them both, and found that he's Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner), a San Francisco venture capitalist and Internet guru? (In this version of the story, the Elaine character spurned her bourgeois-renegade lover and wed her conventional fiance.)

Screenwriter T.M. Griffin and director Rob Reiner should be charged with criminal neglect and maybe cultural treason for doing so little with this premise. In a slack meandering way, they rework the characters from The Graduate to celebrate cozy domesticity rather than risk and adventure.

The filmmakers spin their wheels during the first half-hour, when Sarah and her all-too-understanding lawyer fiance Jeff (Mark Ruffalo) fly from New York to Pasadena for the wedding of Sarah's sister Annie (Mena Suvari). Why invoke The Graduate at all -- a benchmark of youthful alienation from middle-class mores -- if your only stroke of social satire is to poke fun at staid Pasadena?

Soon afterward (but not soon enough), Sarah, an aspiring journalist who feels she's stuck writing obits and wedding notes for "the Gray Lady" (The New York Times!), leaves Jeff at the airport -- she's antsy about their engagement anyway -- and high-tails it by herself to the City by the Bay. She sneaks into a conference where Costner's Burroughs delivers a rousing speech on the Internet Revolution. The movie's set in 1997, before the Internet bubble burst. The Internet may be the equivalent of "Plastics" in the first film but the filmmakers don't wring a single laugh from it. Everyone in the audience knows that the joke's on print journalist Sarah.

The fleeting bits of fun come from the oedipal charade that Sarah and Burroughs play out in San Francisco, Half-Moon Bay and Northern California wine country. Sarah wonders whether she feels different from her dad and Annie (and ambivalent about marriage) because Burroughs might be her real father and the true love of her mother's life. Soon she's so sloshed and besotted she simply takes Burroughs at his word that he's been sterile since adolescence because of "blunt testicular trauma."

It's a blessing for moviegoers that Costner has gotten his second comic wind. He arrives on the scene with his antennae prickling. He boasts just the right casual charisma for Burroughs, who hobnobs with Clinton but doesn't claim to know him. In this year's earlier The Upside of Anger, Costner was hilarious as a guy who couldn't be fazed because he couldn't care less. In Rumor Has It he's charming as an omni-competent captain of new industry who soft-shoes his own confidence. Burroughs says that in his wanderlust years, he learned a two-word motto, "Be Present." Costner always is. He gives the man the erotic awareness to jolt Sarah out of her doldrums and the deep, humorous patience to find her anxieties adorable.

Aniston wakes up in Costner's presence and for a scene or two suggests that she's a movie star. When she's with the wry, gentle Ruffalo -- every casting director's choice for the Sensitive Man -- she descends into the tears, mews and dithers of small-screen relationship-land. With Costner her anguish turns funny and heroic. Unfortunately, it doesn't stay that way. Sarah grows more like her mother in more ways than one. Here, as in other pictures from Cast Away to Spanglish, it's as if liberal Hollywood filmmakers have declared their own Defense of Marriage act -- and extended it, in this case, to include engagements. Rumor Has It fails worse as a dating movie than it does as a follow-up to The Graduate. It sells the idea that romance is something you get out of your system. Despite that sparkling San Francisco getaway, this movie proves to be the year's most anti-romantic comedy.

Rumor Has It

(Warner Bros) Starring Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Costner, Shirley MacLaine and Mena Suvari. Directed by Rob Reiner. Rated PG-13. Time: 96 minutes.

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