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 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. And 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. "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.)