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'The Graduate' it's not

Story of a '60s scandal misses its humor components. Or was it supposed to reach some moral conclusions?

December 23, 2005|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

Wrong-footed from the get-go, "Rumor Has It ..." stars Jennifer Aniston as a 33-year-old New York Times obit writer who returns home to her tennis-playing Pasadena family for the wedding of her younger sister. It's a high-concept movie that never transcends the pitch stage: Young woman thinks her family is the inspiration for "The Graduate." Comedy ensues.

Or not.

For the concept to work, the filmmakers needed to do two things: one, have faith that the majority of their audience has at least a cursory knowledge of the plot of "The Graduate," and two, ensure that their movie would work on its own merits.

The first notion is surrendered immediately as the movie opens with a voice-over by Aniston's character, Sarah Huttinger, tediously relating an early '60s Pasadena scandal that supposedly inspired Charles Webb's 1963 novel and Mike Nichols' 1967 movie.

By the time we catch up with Sarah, she's aboard a plane with Jeff (Mark Ruffalo), her imperturbable fiance, anxious about visiting her family, with whom she has always felt out-of-sorts, and unsure about her future. Once in Pasadena, the film labors to make the point that the city is stodgy and old money and this is exactly what Sarah is rejecting. Her sister (Mena Suvari) is a twit, and her father (Richard Jenkins), at least until the end of the movie, is a bore.

During a heart-to-heart with her well-marinated and still sassy grandmother, Katharine (Shirley MacLaine) -- the only family member with whom she feels connected -- Sarah learns that her mother took a powder the week before her own wedding, engaging in a three-day Mexican fling with a guy named Beau Burroughs. Sarah deduces that Katharine is Mrs. Robinson, her long-dead mother, Jocelyn, is Elaine, and Beau (Kevin Costner) is the Benjamin Braddock of "The Graduate's" unseemly triangle. Doubting her paternity, she impulsively takes off for Northern California to track down Beau, now a high-tech mogul.

Presumably to make the actors' ages roughly line up with Webb's book, the movie (which opens Sunday) is set in 1997, a date that otherwise feels arbitrary. The math still doesn't really work, and it's the kind of movie that further unravels the more you think about it. It's difficult to clearly place blame because of the film's snake-bitten history, although there is plenty to go around.

Original screenwriter Ted Griffin (credited as T.M. Griffin) was to make his feature directing debut but was replaced by director Rob Reiner shortly into the shoot. Reiner made plenty of enjoyable films in the first half of his career, but "Rumor Has It ..." shares only its titular ellipses with "When Harry Met Sally ..." (1989). It more readily fits with such clunkers as "North" (1994), "The Story of Us" (1999) and "Alex & Emma" (2003).

Griffin has publicly disowned the film and, rumor has it, he was heavily rewritten. As big a hash as Reiner makes of things, however, the main fault still lies in the script, whoever actually wrote it. Without the gimmicky connection to "The Graduate," Sarah is a generic romantic movie nonentity faced with the tired dilemma of settling for the safe and predictable or seeking something more adventurous.

Her journey is as awkward as the staging of a scene in which she and Jeff half-heartedly try to join the Mile High Club during a flight from New York to L.A., and the movie is structured just as clumsily. Its jokes mostly don't land, and those that do are as strained as most of the references to "The Graduate." Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" makes a predictable and uninspired appearance, but so does Ennio Morricone's theme from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" -- one of the most overused musical jokes.

The resulting film is a muddled, melodramatic, sort-of remake of "The Graduate" with Sarah essentially going through many of the existential tribulations as Benjamin, only rendered in a witless, banal environment that makes the whole thing pointless as it creeps to its oddly conformist conclusions.


`Rumor Has It ... '

MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, crude humor and a drug reference

Times guidelines: Adult situations

A Warner Bros. release. Director Rob Reiner. Producers Paula Weinstein, Ben Cosgrove. Screenplay T.M. Griffin. Director of photography Peter Deming. Editor Robert Leighton. Costume designer Kym Barrett. Music Marc Shaiman. Production designer Tom Sanders. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

Opens Sunday in general release.

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