By Owen Gleiberman
October 15, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Psychologists always say that it’s healthy for a couple to fight, but somehow it doesn’t feel that way when you’re fighting. The Story of Us, Rob Reiner’s pungent, funny, and surprisingly forceful new movie, follows an embattled Los Angeles couple, Ben and Katie Jordan (Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer), who have been together for 15 years but have stopped recognizing the goodness they share. When they go at each other — as they do for most of the film — the conflicts have a testy directness that’s snappish enough to wound.

In one of the best scenes, the two have just returned from a romantic holiday in Venice. Their first night back, they compose a cuddly letter to their two kids, who are off at camp. Within minutes, the conversation is dotted with grace notes of dissatisfaction, which grow steadily louder until they’ve drowned out everything else. Should Ben and Katie have sex now, or after they finish the letter? Was Katie more spontaneous in Venice? Was the vacation a charade? ”I just don’t want us to get to the point,” says Ben, ”where we can’t make love unless there’s a concierge downstairs.” The argument isn’t really about sex, of course. It’s about power — about whose will is going to prevail. (Well, okay, it’s about sex, too.)

When you go to a Rob Reiner film, you know that it’s going to have the brightly lit, overly patterned surface of an episodic television show. Everything in ”The Story of Us” is spelled out for the audience, and the film works so hard to portray the Jordans as ”normal,” multitasking representatives of American e-commerce suburbanism that it sometimes treads a thin line between the universal and the cliché. There are flashes of caricature (like a montage of buffoonish therapists), as well as cutesy touches, such as Katie’s profession: She’s a crossword puzzle designer. Yet Reiner, working from an adventurously structured script by Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson, creates something unexpected, a marital romance. He traces the squabbles, the war-weary cocooning, and the potential destruction of this relationship on its own fractious, moment-to-moment terms.

What with jobs, kids, and the white noise of responsibility, the Jordans have fallen out of one kind of love and into another. Fed up with playacting, the two undergo a separation, and the film follows the weeks in which they figure out whether to make the break permanent.

”The Story of Us” evokes a paradox of marriage — namely, that Ben and Katie are drawn to each other for the very complementary qualities that also make them rivals. It would be a more resonant movie if we saw those qualities rather than just being told about them, but Willis, as an effusive, workaday dreamer who lacks discipline, and Pfeiffer, as the mature one who’s too fixed on keeping his impracticalities in check, get to project the fullness of their personalities. (Pfeiffer’s final speech is a smiling-through-tears rouser.)

Both actors are terrific: They let us see how only two people who share this deep a bond could connect so intimately through anger. ”The Story of Us” isn’t exactly ”Scenes From a Marriage,” but in its own glossy way it catches the alternating currents of affection and pride, resentment and passion that bind people together even as they’re being torn apart.

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