The friends have scattered, and the sex has gone out of the city. There's nothing left to do but find an unobjectionable man, get engaged, and undergo the ritualistic abasement of introductions to the prospective in-laws. That, at least, is the implicit message of Rumor Has It and The Family Stone, two cinematic life rafts for female stars--Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, respectively--whose sexy, Manhattan singlehoods have run their televised course.
There was a time, not so long ago, when going from TV star to movie star was an unquestioned step upward. George Clooney managed the transition with such aplomb a few years back that the most recent Oscars ceremony essentially anointed him King of Hollywood. But lately, as television has innovated and improved and mainstream film largely stagnated, it's not clear that the old hierarchy still pertains, at least not for those fortunate enough to star on successful series. Take Kiefer Sutherland, who was never more than a middling presence on the big screen, but has become a contemporary icon on the little one. Or take Aniston and Parker: Both have had plenty of bites at the cinematic apple and are scheduled for plenty more, but neither is likely ever again to have a role with the cultural stature of a Rachel Green or Carrie Bradshaw. Big-screen outings such as Rumor Has It and The Family Stone--both released on video this month--are more likely to erase the actresses from public memory than to plant them there anew.
Rumor Has It is Aniston's second post-"Friends" film, coming on the heels of the exceptionally idiotic Derailed, a movie whose title would have been apt had it ever managed to be on the tracks. While Rumor Has It may mark an improvement over that train wreck, it is a small one. The movie is the latest in a series of halfhearted efforts by Rob Reiner, who seems to have lost his enthusiasm for filmmaking but evidently fears that no one will pay attention to his political dabblings if he stops being a Hollywood director. It's a pity, too, as the movie's central conceit contained some promise. Sarah Huttinger (Aniston), an obituary writer for The New York Times, is flying home to Pasadena for her younger sister's wedding. There, she'll introduce her fiancé, Jeff (Mark Ruffalo), to the family, specifically, her widowed father (Richard Jenkins), her bawdy grandmother (Shirley MacLaine), and the perky bride-to-be (Mena Suvari).
Sarah has always felt a little out of place among her relatives--they're too bland, too preppie, too Republican for the adopted Manhattanite--and a possible explanation soon offers itself: It appears Sarah's family provided the inspiration for the Charles Webb novel (and subsequent Mike Nichols film) The Graduate, with her grandmother in the role of Mrs. Robinson and her late mother in the role of Elaine. Moreover, Sarah suspects she may be the illegitimate progeny of the tryst between her mom and the Benjamin Braddock figure, a man named Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner) who went on to become a famous Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Dispatching Jeff back to the East Coast, Sarah sets out to find the man who just might be her father.
It's a clever premise, and might have made for a whimsical farce or cutting black comedy. But Rumor Has It is neither, in part because it tries to be both. When Sarah tracks Beau down in San Francisco he tells her that he couldn't possibly be her father because he is sterile, thanks to a "blunt testicular trauma" suffered in his youth. (The movie finds this phrase hysterical enough to repeat at least half a dozen times.) At first, Sarah is disappointed that Beau is not the genealogical Rosetta Stone of her confused identity. But over the course of the evening she banters pleasantly with her charming almost-Dad, has a great deal to drink, and winds up sleeping with him. Not only does she betray fiancé Jeff, she does it with perhaps the most inappropriate non-blood-relative on the face of the Earth, a man about whom she knows barely anything except that he's had carnal knowledge of both her mother and grandmother before her.
One can imagine this scenario unfolding into something wicked or queasily disconcerting--something along the lines of The Graduate, to cite the obvious model. But Rumor Has It lacks the courage of its own perversity, instead treating Sarah's transgression as no more than a case of questionable judgment. She even spends the next day on further romantic adventures with Beau because, hey, when's the next time she'll have a chance to fly in a private jet and attend a charity ball? There's a brief scare when it appears Beau might be her Dad after all--because then, you see, it would be gross--but in the end (phew!) he's merely some random intergenerational pervert. (Not that Costner plays him that way, of course: He's a perfect gentleman who just happens to screw emotionally vulnerable inebriates half his age.) A day later, when Sarah explains to her younger sister what she has done, the response is edifying. "Wow," the girlish bride effuses. "Wow! How come we've never talked like this before?" Yes, Sarah's quasi-incestuous infidelity has already been transformed into a good thing, a long-overdue opportunity for sisterly bonding. The movie concludes with other, equally cloying lessons: Sarah discovers "who she is," realizes that trusting her feelings is important, and all the other kindergarten pabulum she might have picked up more easily from a Robert Fulghum book. When she finally returns to New York, Jeff forgives her so completely that within moments the wedding is back on track and he's cracking wise about her little romantic detour. "One condition," he informs her. "If we have a daughter, Beau Burroughs doesn't come within a thousand miles of her." Yuk, yuk--yuck.
As bad as Rumor Has It is, Sarah Jessica Parker's big-screen comeback vehicle, The Family Stone, is worse, largely because it fancies itself to be so much better. Whereas Aniston's film aspires to be little more than a daffy entertainment, Parker's imagines it has something to teach us about love, about tolerance, and even about death. The setup is similar: A Manhattan professional named Meredith (Parker) is traveling with her sweetheart, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), for a first meeting with the folks. In this case, though, the family is his not hers, and rather than Southern California Republicans they are New England lefties. The occasion for the visit is Christmas, and while Everett and Meredith are not yet engaged, he hopes to rectify that by popping the question during the trip.
Everett's family takes an immediate dislike to Meredith, and because the family is large, this adds up to a great deal of disliking. There are two brothers, one gay and deaf, the other straight and pot-smoking; and two sisters, the elder married and pregnant, the younger single and bitchy. Dad (Craig T. Nelson) is a relatively gentle ex-professor; Mom (Diane Keaton) is a decidedly ungentle matriarch who delights in her own inappropriateness, as when she tells a horrified Meredith about the boy who "popped" her younger daughter's "cherry." The abuse the family heaps upon uptight, conservative Meredith is considerable and is almost uniformly unfunny, culminating in a nightmarish Christmas Eve dinner, during which the entire clan essentially accuses her of being a homophobe and racist. (Did I fail to mention that gay, deaf brother Thad also has a black boyfriend? The poor guy is all but smothered by his political identifiers.)
But as obnoxious as Meredith's hosts are, it's hard to fault their general perception of her. She is, in fact, someone you would very much like to keep from marrying into your family--brittle, charmless, self-satisfied, and wound tighter than a juiced baseball. It's not even quite clear whether the movie means to present her as an actual low-grade homophobe and racist, or merely as clumsy and misunderstood. Not that Everett is much better, alternating between berating his family for their ill-treatment of Meredith and treating her ill himself. In the dinner-table scene, he first bullies her--"Why don't you try saying what it is you do mean?"--and then, after she's fled the table, complains that everyone else has been mean to her. (It doesn't help that Mulroney brings to the character the patented style of peevish machismo he has displayed in past romantic roles such as My Best Friend's Wedding and The Wedding Date.)
Indeed, for the first 40 minutes or so of the film everyone is so unpleasant that it is hard to tell for whom exactly we're supposed to be rooting. Is Meredith the heroine? Or is she the romantic foil, whom Everett must leave in order to find true love? Or is Everett her romantic foil? The answer, oddly enough, is all of the above. (Spoiler warning, for anyone hoping to maintain a pristine viewing experience.) After the dinner from hell, Meredith goes to stay at a hotel. There she calls her younger sister Julie (Claire Danes) and begs her to abandon her own Christmas plans in order to come support Meredith through her holiday nightmare. (Who would do this?) Everett goes to pick Julie up from the bus stop, and no sooner does he lay eyes on her than he is smitten. This, from a man who that very same day bought an engagement ring for her sister. As with the Beau Burroughs character in Rumor Has It, the obvious assumption to make would be that Everett is a remarkable cad. But The Family Stone is far too lofty for such judgmentalism. It will take a while--in particular, a late-night stroll in which they trade generic, pseudo-soulful blather--but eventually Everett and Julie will hook up, and we will be expected to consider this a good thing.
In order to make the film's moral calculus work, of course, Meredith needs to be paired off, too. Her unanticipated Perfect Man turns out to be Everett's brother Ben (Luke Wilson), the pot-smoking slacker. There are early indications that he is interested in Meredith, though they are generally played for grossness, as when she is sitting in her car and he stretches lazily outside of it, his sweat-panted crotch inches from her face. But after her terrible run-ins with his family, Ben takes her out for a drink, which soon turns into several. The drunk Meredith is as fun and impulsive as the sober one was dreary and uptight. Ben mumbles a couple of painful would-be profundities--for instance, describing a dream he had, in which "You were just a little girl in a flannel nightgown, and you were shoveling snow from the walk in front of our house ... and I was the snow"--and by evening's end she has wound up in his bed. Unlike Sarah in Rumor Has It, her honor is still intact, though for some reason she assumes it isn't. (The implicit message of both films is: Men, keep your ladies away from that irresistible love demon, booze.)
On Christmas morning, Everett and Meredith's conveniently balanced infidelities are revealed. Tempers flare briefly, but they quickly dissolve in a froth of slapstick, when Meredith spills an eggy breakfast concoction all over the kitchen (and herself) and the family takes turns slipping giddily onto the linoleum. The movie is all queued up for happily-ever-afters all around--except for one thing: Everett's mother, as we learned earlier, is dying of cancer. Yes, for all its wish-fulfillment simplemindedness, in which vicious aspersions are quickly forgotten and a couple can sibling-swap without jealousy or hurt feelings, The Family Stone still considers itself a serious film. There's even a scene with Everett's folks in bed, in which Mom--played, again, by lifelong audience sweetheart Keaton--opens her pajama top to reveal her mastectomy scar. Under other circumstances, this might be a heartbreaking moment. But in this smug, insipid movie it's merely a cheap manipulation, a bid for unearned moral gravity.
The film ends on a similar note, at a future Christmas gathering in which all the hastily established romantic couplings are shown to have become loving and permanent. Mom, however, has passed away, so the family gathers together a little sadly, exchanging hugs and blinking back tears, before the camera pans over to close on a black-and-white portrait of her (pregnant, no less) hanging on the wall above them. It's a conclusion so mawkish and self-loving it could almost make you wish for a tasteless joke like the one that ends Rumor Has It. A better response, though, would be to find yourself a rerun of "Friends" or "Sex in the City" and pretend none of this ever happened.
The Home Movies List: The Jump
George Clooney (1996). Clooney would hang around on "ER" for a couple more years, but his 1996 doubleheader made it clear his future was on the big screen. First, in the Robert Rodriguez abduction thriller/vampire flick From Dusk 'Til Dawn, he helped make Quentin Tarantino (who played his brother) look like a credible actor. Then, in One Fine Day, he made talented-but-chilly Michelle Pfeiffer look like a credible romantic-comedy lead.
David Caruso (1995). More common, unfortunately, is the case of the TV star who decides he's gotten too big for the little screen only to discover he's mistaken. Caruso (who'd been excellent in a small, pre-fame role in Mad Dog and Glory) never knew how good he had it on "NYPD Blue" until he tried to conquer the multiplex in Kiss of Death (a not-bad movie) and Jade (an exceptionally bad movie). Now he's back where he belongs--and again a star--playing a TV cop on "CSI: Miami."
Rob Morrow (1994). Another guy who didn't quite manage the jump. After a splendid run on "Northern Exposure" Morrow decamped for Quiz Show. (At least Aniston and Parker had the decency to stick around until their shows had run their course.) Quiz Show was good--though not quite so good as its reputation--but Morrow's painful New England accent set his career back a few years. Like Caruso, he's gotten another shot on the tube in "Numb3rs."
Tom Hanks (1984). Who could've imagined the "Bosom Buddies" star would be the first man since Spencer Tracy to win back-to-back Oscars? (Not me, and not you either.) Splash gave him enough momentum to overcome some lean years (The Man with One Red Shoe, Volunteers, The Money Pit, Dragnet, etc.) on his way to Big, but stardom wasn't secure until Sleepless in Seattle and the Academy-friendly fare that followed.
Kiefer Sutherland (2001). A few other film stars have lately done well with the reverse-jump to the small screen (Glenn Close on "The Shield," Patricia Arquette on "Medium") but none has had the smash success of Sutherland, who's gone from cinematic also-ran to TV icon. Now, if he can only get dad Donald to make a cameo on the show, perhaps as a sleazy Republican congressman ...
Christopher Orr is a Senior Editor at TNR