Rumor Has It begins with the premise that Charles Webb based his novel “The Graduate” on a real family in Pasadena. (And perhaps he did; I don’t know whether this idea is based in fact or not.) Writers draw on real-life influences all the time. But what if it was your family that provided the inspiration for one of the most well-known and, in some ways, scandalous stories of modern times? And what if they made a movie out of that story that was familiar to just about everyone, even thirty years after the fact?
Jennifer Aniston plays Sarah Huttinger, a New York-based writer of obituaries and wedding announcements. Sara has just gotten engaged, but ever since accepting the proposal of boyfriend Jeff (Mark Ruffalo), she’s been stricken with fear. Yes, she loves him, but she’s missing the sense of excitement that she thinks ought to accompany an engagement. While in California attending the wedding of her sister Annie (Mena Suvari), she begins asking questions about her mother, who died when Sarah was nine. Her grandmother Katherine (Shirley MacLaine) makes an offhanded comment about the woman running off to Mexico a week before marrying Sarah’s father Earl (Richard Jenkins). She quickly tries to retract that comment.
Sarah realizes that something is being kept secret. She digs deeper, only to learn that her mother had a brief pre-marital fling with Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner). She also discovers that Katherine had a fling with Beau as well. And – to make matters worse – Beau was a college friend of none other than Charles Webb, writer of “The Graduate.” The pieces suddenly fall into place: her mother was the inspiration for Elaine, Beau was the real Benjamin Braddock, and Katherine is Mrs. Robinson.
The discovery leads to a series of questions about why her mother had an affair and, more importantly, whether Beau could possibly be her biological father. Sarah tracks down Beau, who is in the internet – not the plastics – business. He denies paternity and immediately tries to romance Sarah, who doesn’t exactly discourage it. Although it’s never explicitly spelled out, we get the impression that she is, in some way, trying to connect with her mother by stepping into her shoes. I am reminded of The Vanishing, in which a man wants to know how his girlfriend died, so he contacts her kidnapper and asks the man to put him through the same paces. That film involved being buried alive. This one has a significantly less horrifying outcome, but essentially gets at the same idea. Sometimes the only way to truly understand someone else is to know his or her experience directly.
Rumor Has It was directed by Rob Reiner, whose early career started strong with Stand By Me and This is Spinal Tap, but in recent years has spiraled downward with the likes of North and Alex & Emma. This new movie is a welcome return to form. Reiner finds the right balance between humor and empathy that is in Ted Griffin’s smart screenplay. The film is funny but it also takes the premise seriously. Sarah is a woman looking to solve her own screwed-up relationship by solving the mystery of her family. Reiner’s approach keeps her journey sympathetic, where in other hands it might have come across as whiny or immature.
Jennifer Aniston is a great choice for the lead role. As she’s demonstrated on “Friends” and in her film roles, the actress is talented at mixing comedy with emotion. She’s a hard person not to like; that quality allows her to be the anchor of the story. Aniston has some really nice scenes with Kevin Costner, who has reinvented himself as a first-rate character actor. He follows his winning performance in The Upside of Anger with an equally effective turn here. He does not play Beau as a sleazebag, nor as a cad. Does Beau like the challenge of trying to bed three generations of women from the same family? Perhaps, but he also is a genuinely caring man whose feelings for Sarah’s mother seem authentic. Costner’s role is tricky but he keeps Beau likable, even when we don’t entirely approve of his actions.
One of the most amusing things in Rumor Has It is the idea that Katherine is the real Mrs. Robinson. As a viewer of The Graduate, Mrs. Robinson is a fascinating character who you can enjoy watching, but you wouldn’t necessarily want her as your grandmother. Shirley MacLaine owns the role of the woman who wouldn’t necessarily think twice about seducing her daughter’s boyfriend. The actress brings her wonderfully brash humor to the role, especially during a scene in which Katherine has to make a crude remark to Mark Ruffalo’s character. She only has a few scenes, but they are crucial ones, and MacLaine hits a home run.
As much as I like the movie’s plot – and as good as I think it is – there are a few moments that don’t quite ring true. For instance, it contains one of those scenes where the woman kisses the other man just as her boyfriend walks into the room. Some of these manipulations are necessary to keep the plot moving, I guess, but I wonder if they could have been handled differently.
There aren’t many of those missteps, though. For the most part, Rumor Has It is a completely charming movie with terrific performances. Like The Graduate, it’s about someone trying to sort out their place in life. Sarah Huttinger and Benjamin Braddock end up in different places for different reasons, yet both come away better for the experience.
( out of four)
Rumor Has It is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, crude humor and a drug reference. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.
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