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Published: Sunday, 12/25/2005

Movie review: Rumor Has It *

The mystery of Jennifer Aniston is that there is no mystery to Jennifer Aniston. She is what she is, but that does not make her a movie star.

And the mystery of Rob Reiner is why studios still allow him to make comedies. Going on a decade now, after the previous decade in which he could do no wrong, Reiner hasn t made a single film that rises above merely awful.

And now both of those mysteries of Hollywood life come together in one vast mysterious black hole of filmmaking called Rumor Has It, which opens today and begins with a title that explains the picture is Based on a True Rumor.

A Pasadena legend, in fact.

I guess there are such things.

The film asks: What if The Graduate had been based on an actual Pasadena family? One with an older Mrs. Robinson figure who seduced a younger man and friend of the family? Who, in turn, barged in on the wedding of the woman s daughter, running away with the daughter, sticking it to stuck-up Pasadena society?

That, with a few changes, is the general plot of The Graduate, both the novel by Charles Webb and the 1967 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and directed by Mike Nichols. Rumor Has It, however, does nothing with this What If?

Oh, it poses those questions, just not in a compelling or interesting way that No. 1, tells us anything about the characters, No. 2, tells us anything about The Graduate, or No. 3, clues us in on how the family must feel to be the focus of a classic.

There is a brief clip of the famous scene where Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Robinson) cocks her leg just so and seduces a nervous Hoffman, but that s the only clip, and largely, the film s themes of alienation and youthful rebellion are ignored for the simpler point of who did what.

Perhaps the fear (I fear) is that a younger audience wouldn t be familiar with The Graduate or maybe Reiner was worried that the notion of a family mortified to see its dirty laundry become our pop culture lingua franca actually sounds kind of quaint in these days of reality television, when families string up the clothesline themselves and wait for a network to smell the stink.

Bad idea

Whatever the question, the answers to all of the picture s mysteries are handled in the first 30 minutes which seems to me a fatal goof. The other killer flub is making the questions themselves peripheral to the plot, while making the plot itself more of a Judy Blume story for grown-ups, sort of an Are You There, Kevin Costner? It's Me, Jennifer Aniston.

She plays Sarah, and we should all have Sarah s problems: She is beautiful, smart, svelte, engaged to a decent soul (Mark Ruffalo), and works as an obituary writer at the New York Times the job of a consummate journalist, a highly prized position. To Sarah, the job is just a dead end.

Pun intended, and why not?

Sarah doesn t know who she is, as she explains in a monologue, while sitting on a plane headed to Pasadena for the wedding of her younger sister (Mena Suvari). She doesn t look forward to marrying Ruffalo, and she doesn t feel as though she has a thing in common with her family. To Sarah, it is a possible sign that she is not her father s daughter.

In Pasadena, she hears a rumor: Her late mother ran off with another guy a week before she married Sarah s father (played by the great character actor Richard Jenkins).

Sarah flutters about nervously as she learns the truth about her clan, but she can think of nothing remotely memorable to say, except that she doesn t know who she is, and could her mom s ex-beau be her real dad?

A winning Costner

This does nothing for a film forced to evoke The Graduate at every turn but also one that unwisely (and oddly) drains, as quickly as possible, whatever drama might exist. Sarah travels to San Francisco to find Beau, played by Kevin Costner with the kind of relaxed air that should buy him at least another decade in Hollywood. One of the most insufferably self-important actors for a while, he s become one of the most generous, and funny, too. Anyway, he tells her he isn t her father, and then sleeps with her. Like mother, like daughter like grandmother.

She s played by Shirley Mac-Laine for just two brief scenes as the wise-cracking, chain-smoking, suspiciously wrinkle-free model for Mrs. Robinson. MacLaine gets off a couple of raunchy, very funny lines that sound ad-libbed and this does nothing for Aniston. Nor does being surrounded by good-to-great actors like Ruffalo, Jenkins, and Costner. And even Suvari.

But let s not mince words: Aniston is not a movie star.

She has no mystery, no ability to hide herself or even a part of herself. She is likeable, but actors on a big screen, to grab us, need to withhold a piece of their personalities. Aniston is stuck in the timing and broad rhythms of sitcoms. She brings herself fully, too fully. She would probably be better on a stage, where her mugging would need to be seen in the cheap seats.

On a big screen, it looks like she spends entire movies trying to remember where she left her car keys.



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