5 January 2006 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »

One of the better gags in Robert Altman's "The Player" has Buck Henry, co-writer of "The Graduate", pitching a sequel to that classic comedy. Rob Reiner's "Rumor Has It" virtually is that sequel. But it's not quite a comedy, nor can one call it a drama. And the only social satire consists of easy potshots at "old money" Pasadena society. A number of fine actors giving solid performances get caught in this morass of neither-here-nor-there, but they do trigger laughs. Nevertheless, the movie never gets enough comic traction to take off into what it apparently wants to be: a personal odyssey of self-discovery mixed in with an examination of a genuine American movie classic.

The cast of Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Costner, Shirley MacLaine and Mark Ruffalo ensures a high-profile Christmas Day opening for Warner Bros. Pictures. But a film with such a peculiar premise might not generate the word-of-mouth necessary to turn "Rumor" into a hit.

Aniston plays Sarah Huttinger, a young journalist whose career has hit a dead end in New York. She returns to her hometown of Pasadena, along with her devoted fiance, Jeff (Ruffalo), to attend the wedding of her sister Annie (Mena Suvari). Almost immediately, she learns that the movie (and novel) "The Graduate" might be based on her family and that her acid-tongued grandmother Katharine (MacLaine) could be the inspiration for Mrs. Robinson. Why this hasn't come up before in her 30-plus years is a puzzle, but the secret certainly becomes her obsession now.

Prewedding activities and introductions to a family seemingly at odds with Sarah's own personal makeup form a serio-comic backdrop to Sarah's journalistic inquiry into this secret. Much is at stake here, for Sarah has become convinced that she might be the offspring of a romantic rendezvous between her late mother and the "Dustin Hoffman character", which took place the week before her parents' wedding.

She tracks down an old classmate of her parents, one Beau Burroughs (Costner), now an Internet billionaire living in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Incidentally, the movie is set in 1997 to keep "The Graduate" and the characters' ages in sync.) Even as she is posing the question to him, she falls under the spell that apparently affected both her mother and grandmother.

The key problem is the underdeveloped nature of the film's heroine. The character seems built for comedy but invariably gets thrust into highly emotional situations. Yet Sarah's distress is never made credible, any more than is her ignorance of this family secret. She comes off neurotic and highly strung -- even before she learns the deep, dark secret. Plus her engagement jitters are far too exaggerated, given the absence of any real issues between her and Jeff.

Initially, the film, written by T.M. Griffin, gets comic mileage out of caricaturing Sarah's overly comfortable family -- the staid, oblivious dad (played by the underrated Richard Jenkins), her bouncy blonde sister, the sister's tennis-playing fiance and, of course, the grandmother who might be Anne Bancroft but who is really Shirley MacLaine. When the story does an about-face and tries to give these characters more depth, this serves to make the opening bits seem overly manipulative if not downright false.

Aniston gets marooned here: Her comic instincts are muted by all the identity angst, yet there isn't sufficient dramatic material into which she can sink her teeth. Costner strolls through this role with disarming ease, but the character is more of a plot gimmick than a flesh-and-blood person. MacLaine gets all the best lines and certainly delivers them with panache. The story marginalizes Ruffalo's character until the last act, and by then it's too late.

Where Reiner's direction of comedy ("When Harry Met Sally ..".) and satire ("This Is Spinal Tap") once had real snap, here he is edging uncomfortably into sitcom, only with a paucity of laugh lines. Technical credits are pro, with a collection of oldies and a whimsical score by Marc Shaiman being the strongest element.


Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Village Roadshow Pictures presents a Section Eight/Spring Creek Prods.


Director: Rob Reiner

Screenwriter: T.M. Griffin

Producers: Paula Weinstein, Ben Cosgrove

Executive producers: George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, Jennifer Fox, Michael Rachmil, Leo Amato, Robert Kirby, Bruce Bermann

Director of photography: Peter Deming

Production designer: Thomas Sanders

Music: Marc Shaiman

Costumes: Kym Barrett

Editor: Robert Leighton. Cast: Sarah Huttinger: Jennifer Aniston

Beau Burroughs: Kevin Costner

Katharine: Shirley MacLaine: Jeff: Mark Ruffalo

Earl: Richard Jenkins

Roger: Christopher McDonald

Scott: Steve Sandvoss

Annie: Mena Suvari

MPAA rating PG-13

Running time -- 96 minutes

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