RUMOR HAS IT... - HD DVD review

Rumor has it that Rob Reiner used to make really funny, often moving films. I have no doubt he will do so again.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Despite an intriguing premise and the engaging presence of Kevin Costner, Jennifer Aniston, Shirley MacLaine, Mark Ruffalo, Kathy Bates, and Mena Suvari, 2005's "Rumor Has It..." did not fare as well as expected at the box office. The film took in about $42,000,000, which is hardly small potatoes, but given the talent involved, the receipts probably didn't add up to as much as the movie's production costs. Although it's not a bad film, the box office take may be a good indication of the film's overall merits.

Warner Bros. have released the movie in three configurations on three individual discs, purchased separately. They've made it available in standard-definition fullscreen and widescreen, and in the HD-DVD and DVD Combo reviewed here. More about that in a minute.

First, why might the movie have not done as well as the studio had hoped? Well, aside from its not being the funniest or most touching romantic comedy of all time, it works on a premise with which not everyone may be familiar. "Rumor Has It..." is about a young woman, played by Ms. Aniston, who discovers that the writer of the famous novel (and movie) "The Graduate" may have based his story on her own family! Now, this makes a clever throwback to the older film, but I wonder if anyone in the Hollywood community realized that many young people today don't really know all that much about "The Graduate" beyond its title? I raised the question of "The Graduate" a few years ago with my film classes, and I found that while most of the students recognized the title, almost none of them (about sixty-five juniors and seniors) had ever seen the film. I mean, how would they? Yes, "The Graduate" is a famous motion picture; but it was made in 1967. How many young people in their teens and twenties (who make up a big percentage of the viewing public) would rent or buy "The Graduate"? It's not a recent blockbuster, after all. And it doesn't show up on television very often. I'd be willing to bet that many of you (presumably film fans) reading this review right now either have never seen "The Graduate" or saw it so long ago you can't remember much about it.

So you get a movie like "Rumor Has It..." that relies heavily on an audience's knowledge of a previous film, and when that knowledge is lacking, the new movie may seem rather shallow. Worse, audiences that are familiar with the older film are likely to make comparisons and remember how much better "The Graduate" was than this new extension. Anyway, in fairness the new film, within the context of its goings on, does try to provide some background material on the subject matter of the older film; but it's not like having the seen the older film and remembering it well.

I understand that at one point the filmmakers had wanted Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman to reprise their original "Graduate" roles, but Ms. Brancroft passed away and Hoffman was too busy. So the parts went to Shirley MacLaine and Kevin Costner, who were about a decade too young for the characters (some forty years had passed since the happenings in "The Graduate," after all). As a result, the filmmakers set "Rumor Has It..." in 1997, keeping the actors' real ages more in line with the characters they were playing. Of course, the actors in the first movie were supposed to be playing other, real-life people, and the actors in the new movie are supposed to be those real-life people, so it doesn't matter that the two sets of actors don't look exactly alike. (Does that make sense? I'm not sure even I followed what I just said.)

Rob Reiner directed "Rumor Has It...," and the film marks a general downward trend in his ability to come up with genuine laughs or genuine emotions. In the first phase of his directorial career, it seemed like he could do no wrong: "This Is Spinal Tap," "Stand By Me," "The Princess Bride," "A Few Good Men," "The American President," and one of the best romantic comedies of all time, "When Harry Met Sally." But Reiner's last few films have been less than spectacular: "North," "Alex & Emma," "The Two of Us."

I don't mean to imply that "Rumor Has It..." is awful. As I said at the start, it's got a clever premise and an engaging cast. It's just that the story doesn't take either one of them very far.

You may remember that in "The Graduate" young Ben Braddock, just out of college, slept with both an older woman, Mrs. Robinson, and the woman's college-aged daughter. Was it fiction? Or was it based on a real-life situation? Well, rumor has it....

Jennifer Aniston plays Sarah Huttinger, who returns home from New York to Pasadena with her lawyer boyfriend, Jeff (Mark Ruffalo), to attend her younger sister's wedding. The younger sister, Annie (Mena Suvari), is an airhead marrying a guy with whom she enjoys playing tennis.

Sarah is looking for more adventure in life than her fiancée or her dead-end newspaper job can provide, and when she sees her conservative father and his conservative Pasadena friends, she gets even more depressed. At the wedding, she overhears things (that in her thirty-odd years she never noticed until now) that lead her to suspect that maybe her relatives were the inspirations that lead an old family friend, Charles Webb, to write his novel "The Graduate." Like, maybe her father (played by the wonderful character actor Richard Jenkins) is not her real father at all; like maybe her mother, who died when she was a child, slipped away with somebody else before marrying her dad....

Aunt Mitzi (an uncredited Kathy Bates), Sarah's mother's best friend, tells Sarah about a fellow named Beau Burroughs (Costner), with whom the mother had a fling before getting married. Could it be? Could Beau Burroughs and the book's "fictional" Benjamin Braddock be one and the same? And could Beau have also had a real-life affair with Sarah's grandmother, Katherine (Shirley MacLaine), a real-life Mrs. Robinson? "Things are never what they seem with the women in this family," says Katherine, who provides the single biggest spark in the picture.

There is only one way for Sarah to find out the truth: Look up and talk to this Burroughs fellow. So far, so good, but it is at this point, about halfway through the story, that things turn overly sappy and overly serious, conditions from which the movie never recovers. Beau turns out to be a multimillionaire who made his fortune not in plastics, but in computers. He's so rich he's got a mansion on the coast in Half Moon Bay, a winery and vineyards in the Napa wine country, and a private jet to take him anywhere he wants to go. As he says, "Life should be a little nuts; otherwise, it's just a bunch of Thursdays thrown together." Apparently, old Ben succeeded beyond "The Graduate's" wildest imagination.

Needless to say, Beau insists he cannot be Sarah's father, that it is a physical impossibility; the two become intimate; and this cad succeeds at having affairs with three generations of the same family. And that's about it: the once naive and flustered Ben Braddock has turned into the rich and lecherous Beau Burroughs. Neither the story nor the characters are developed any further than what the average moviegoer could guess going in. Worse, what few laughs there are in the story's first-half buildup completely dissipate in the second-half resolution.

Director Reiner and screenwriter Ted Griffin throw in a few other movie references besides "The Graduate," including "Casablanca," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," and "Chinatown," titles that may also fly right over the heads of many younger viewers. What's more, the filmmakers try to evoke the same feeling of confusion and frustration felt by the main character in "The Graduate," but Jennifer Aniston's Sarah doesn't appear as seriously troubled as Hoffman's Ben Braddock; and the new film wraps things up with a predictably happy, complacent Hollywood ending, unlike the more appropriately ambiguous closing of the earlier film.

What we're left with in "Rumor Has It..." is a tribute to a much better picture by filmmakers who are clearly indebted to the earlier effort but cannot improve upon it in their quasi-sequel. Maybe Hoffman was lucky to have been too busy to participate in this affair.

With the HD/DVD combo you get the high-definition HD-DVD version of the movie in 1080p on one side of the disc and the standard-definition DVD version on the other side. The idea seems to be twofold: If you own an HD-DVD player and one or more SD-DVD players, you can play the movie in any of them. Moreover, if you want the movie today but you're thinking of buying an HD-DVD player sometime in the future, you are ready for it, while still being able to enjoy the film in your old player. For these conveniences, you pay a few extra dollars for the hybrid disc over the standard disc.

How do the two versions compare? Well, usually I can play an SD and HD disc side by side in two separate players for an instant back-and-forth comparison, but in the case of "Rumor Has It..." I had only the one disc. So first I watched a few minutes of the SD version, which is a high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer that the keep case says is in a 1.85:1 ratio. It looks fine, with bright colors, strong black levels, and fairly decent definition. It's a typically good WB product that I would rate about an 8/10.

Then I watched the entire movie in HD, and the standard-def picture didn't look so good to me anymore, even with a minute or so of lag time flipping over the disc. That's the trouble with ball games and comparisons, I suppose; somebody's got to lose, even when both sides are pretty good. Without a doubt, the HD picture is clearer than the SD, better delineated, with even stronger, deeper colors. It is not without blemish--I did not find the image quite as sharp as on some other WB high-def discs, and there is a fine grain present--but it is still quite good. Warner Bros. say on the keep case that is in a 1.78:1 ratio, and certainly both pictures fill a widescreen TV screen. If I were rating the HD video quality on an SD scale, it would be a 10/10. But as I am rating it on an HD scale, I'd say an 8/10 is about right.

There isn't much to say about the audio. On the SD side we get Dolby Digital 5.1, and on the HD side we get Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1. Since there isn't much more to the soundtrack than dialogue and background music, I couldn't tell much difference between the two, except that maybe the DD+ sounded a trifle cleaner. It should, given its more advanced technology and played back through my Toshiba player's 5.1 analogue outputs. But, as I say, with source material so mundane, it's hard to tell. In any case, both the DD 5.1 and the DD+ sounded fine and provide a clear access to what is being said.

The primary extra is obviously having the movie in two separate audio-video formats. Beyond that, there is little else but a widescreen theatrical trailer; twenty-five scene selections (but no chapter insert); English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Shots:
"Rumor Has It..." seemed to have so much going for it, I was disappointed that the filmmakers didn't take it any further than they did and produced something as tired and tedious as this. You can just about guess everything that is going to happen and in what sequence from just the brief description I provided in my third paragraph above. Rumor has it that Rob Reiner used to make really funny, often moving films. I have no doubt he will do so again.


Film Value