Rumor Has It

on December 25, 2005 by Ray Greene
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It's insufficient to say that director Rob Reiner's grimly unfunny new comedy makes a viewer yearn for “The Graduate,” that iconic film of 38 years ago in whose reflected glory Reiner's “Rumor Has It” attempts to bask while casting nothing but shadows of its own. You don't yearn for “The Graduate” watching this picture -- you grieve for it, mourning the lost art of its wit, its comedic daring and, above all, its rebellious vision of the human heart. At the same time, the mere existence of “Rumor Has It” proves that “The Graduate,” for all its achievements and enduring popularity, can ultimately be judged a cataclysmic cinematic failure.

Because the fact is that1967's “The Graduate” wasn't just trying to be a terrific movie. It was also a polemic by filmmaker Mike Nichols against a certain narrow vision of the romantic comedy popular at the time. In the first six years of the 1960s, Doris Day -- as much a symbol of unthreatening feminine purity to her era as Mary Pickford had been to hers -- was the top American box office star for four years, the top American female star five times, and had made the top 10 list of American box office draws in every year but 1962. Day's chaste light comedy persona was immortalized in films like “Pillow Talk” (1959) and “The Glass Bottom Boat” (1966), becoming so fixed in the American mind that the great wit Oscar Levant, who worked at MGM when Day's film career was launched there in the 1950s, was able to say of her, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”

Nichols' scabrous comedy of loose morals was a direct response to the comedies of romantic affirmation Day specialized in. When Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock blundered into a sexual relationship with a predatory older woman and then realized he was really in love with her daughter, the generation gap which was about to break open in American society found one of its earliest and most compelling dramatizations, and “Pillow Talk” and pictures like it quickly became things of the past.

“Rumor Has It” is based on an urban legend of sorts, which is that the characters in “The Graduate” were drawn from real life, and that many of the events the film depicts actually happened to an upscale family in Pasadena, California. Jennifer Aniston is Sarah, the oldest daughter of the Huttinger clan, real world doppelgangers for “The Graduate's” Robinsons. It's 1997, 30 years after Nichols' film was released (the period is rendered uncertainly enough to include a “rumor” about an AOL/Time-Warner merger that would not take place until the year 2000). Sarah is in crisis as she heads home from New York for the wedding of her kid sister (Mena Suvari, who sparkles, and has matured into a gifted comedienne). Sarah has cold feet about her own recent engagement to boyfriend Jeff Daly (a neutered Mark Ruffalo), and a burning desire to uncover the secrets of her deceased mother's past.

That set-up could have led to an interesting revisionist riff on “The Graduate,” a film whose acerbic viewpoint and romantic cynicism “Rumor Has It” couldn't disagree with more. But it becomes apparent pretty quickly that Ted Griffin's screenplay has no real viewpoint on the source it's cannibalizing. The “Graduate” connection is just a device to set the plot moving, and Griffin could have just as easily used something more cliché (and therefore more attuned to this movie's general tone), such as Sarah finding Mother's old love-letters in the attic, or stumbling onto a passionate photo of mom with a man other than her ineffectual dad (Richard Jenkins).

Aniston's natural gift for comedy is singularly ill-used by a script and direction that keeps her brow continuously furrowed as she sweeps skeletons out of the family closet, only to fall momentarily into the arms of one named Beau Burrows (Kevin Costner). Burrows is the inspiration for “The Graduate's” Benjamin Braddock, and thereby a former lover of both Sarah's dead mother and her harridan grandma (Shirley MacLaine).

Though Costner gives a wry and knowing performance that is easily the finest thing in the movie, the character he's playing sinks a vessel that was already taking on a lot of water before he climbed on board. Implausibly, the Benjamin Braddock who choked with horror at the suggestion that he go into “plastics” in the Nichols film has grown up to become a more tousled version of Microsoft Billionaire Bill Gates, with a touch of motivational guru Tony Robbins thrown in for good measure.

When Aniston contacts him out of a fear that he's her real father, Beau convinces her he isn't then sweeps her off her feet by flying her to his winery (he pilots his own plane, of course) and bedding her down in a Northern California palazzo worthy of a Medici. This is fakey-wakey movie fantasy stuff of the “Indecent Proposal” variety, the kind of thing the movie textbooks tell us “The Graduate” rendered obsolete forever, but which appears in our theatres with the alarming frequency of Britney Spears divorce rumors at a supermarket magazine stand. Intersecting clichés like MacLaine's unbearable foxy grandma, who is given to saying things like “Go play with your dick” and “I'm freezing my nuts off,” only add to the general sense of an ennui that becomes, over time, the closest thing “Rumor Has It” offers in the way of a genuine homage to its nominal “source.” The difference of course is that where Hoffman's quiet despair in “The Graduate” was both hilarious and harrowing to watch, here, that empty feeling belongs to the audience, not a character in the movie.

Ironically, Nichols' first choice to play the icy Mrs. Robinson wasn't Anne Bancroft, who immortalized the part, nor Shirley MacLaine, who, to phrase things as Grandma Huttinger might, pisses on its memory here. As final proof of his iconoclastic intent, Nichols wanted Doris Day for his scheming, middle-aged suburban adulteress. Day turned him down, fearing the damage the part would do to her wholesome image, only to find that the paradigm shift Nichols brought about when “The Graduate” became a runaway smash effectively ended her own film career.

“Rumor Has It” is, at least in that sense, a settling of the old scores. Nichols' film may have won the skirmish and imprinted itself on film culture forever in the process. But Doris Day won the war. Her cheerful, middlebrow spirit and ultimate faith in the old romantic clichés is abroad in nearly every frame of “Rumor Has It” -- and in the thousand films just like it any given American moviegoer will be offered by the local multiplex over the next 38 years. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Costner and Shirley MacLaine. Directed by Rob Reiner. Written by T.M. Griffin. Produced by Paula Weinstein and Ben Cosgrove. A Warner Bros. release. Comedy. Rated PG- 13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, crude humor and a drug reference. Running time: 96 min

Tags: Starring Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Costner, Shirley MacLaine. Directed by Rob Reiner. Written by T.M. Griffin, Produced by Paula Weinstein, Ben Cosgrove, Warner Bros, Comedy
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