Buck Henry walks into a studio boss' office and pitches him a movie. Says it's gonna be a sequel to a movie he wrote called The Graduate, the beloved Mike Nichols film that starred Dustin Hoffman as 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock, and Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross as the mother and daughter he fucked one hazy summer. Henry's pitch, tossed with the stinging accuracy of a savage satirist, was intended to garner the cheapo laugh when it was uttered at the opening of Robert Altman's 1992 film The Player. The audience hears only a snippet of their chitchat through an open window, and it always elicits knowing titters; Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkin, who also wrote the novel The Player, know this kind of bullshit gets spoken in studio meetings, and they abhor the people who would even consider such an abominable act as franchising The Graduate.
So, then, where does that leave director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Ted Griffin (Ocean's Eleven), who have done that very thing while cowering behind the thin, tattered shroud of the tagline "based on a true rumor," which, like everything about Rumor Has It . . . , is something intended to be funny that can't even fetch a smile. (This is a movie rife with jokes that lie there bleeding and whimpering, begging to be put out of their misery.) Warner Bros. and the filmmakers can claim it's some kind of homage or reinterpretation or riff, but it's nothing more than a sequel that imagines what would have happened had Katharine Ross left Hoffman and married the other guy, then had a daughter who slept with Hoffman some 34 years later. Even before the movie's official Web site loads any images, you hear Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson"; had they simply called it The Graduate 2 and been honest about their intentions, at least you could respect the movie just a little more.
But no, it's all so cutesy and coy: The film pretends to offer up the real-life inspiration behind the movie, as though Rumor Has It . . . , which is set in January 1997 and full of anachronistic holes (including a reference to the December 1997 release Titanic), is any less a shiny Hollywood fantasy than the 1967 Nichols film. It's just a lesser version with smaller stars, a hijacking of the audience's goodwill for an icon in order to sell its shoddy knock-off. So no Mrs. Robinson here, just Mrs. Richelieu, played by Shirley MacLaine with a tart tongue and drunken-stupor stare. Elaine Robinson (Ross' character) is long dead now, the victim of some unspecified illness. (Frankly, there might have been some discussion of what felled her, but at some point I stopped paying attention; the movie was begging for it.) And instead of the nebbishy, clumsy Benjamin Braddock we get uninterested, smarmy Beau Burroughs, a wealthy Internet guru played by Kevin Costner with the lethargy of a man too tired to even collect much less cash the paycheck.
Jennifer Aniston, a Friend in need of better movies, plays whiny, selfish Sarah Huttinger, who, during a trip home to Pasadena for the wedding of her younger sister (bouncy Mena Suvari), discovers her family was indeed the inspiration for the novel and film The Graduate. Grandmother Richelieu spills the beans while spilling some booze: Sarah's mom ran off with Beau the week before her wedding, then returned home to marry Sarah's dad (played by Richard Jenkins), and less than nine months later Sarah was born. Sarah, who claims she never fit in with her family because she doesn't have blonde hair like her sister and doesn't drive as slow as her father, discovers Graduate novelist Charles Webb was a classmate of her mother and Beau's, and sets off to find Beau and ask if he's her father.
Of course he isn't: The trailer reveals the fact Beau and Sarah sleep together, though if he had been her father, well, that certainly would have made Rumor Has It . . . a far more provocative or at least interesting movie. As such, it stands as one of the year's worst offerings: the proverbial lump of coal at Christmastime, shoved down our stockings without a suggestion of care. Everything about the movie is rinky-dink, from its phony, lifeless dialogue to its drab, shabby sitcom look and choppy editing, all of which can wear on you after 95 minutes that come to feel like an eternity.
Reiner, who hasn't made a good movie in a decade (and, in keeping with the season, that is being most charitable), further sinks into oblivion; the man's like a jazz drummer who's lost all sense of rhythm. He's banging away, producing nothing but noise. The cast falls victim to his clumsiness; MacLaine, once more relegated to the role of go-to grandma, gives the appearance of a drag queen offering up an Anne Bancroft impersonation. And once more, Mark Ruffalo, who plays Aniston's perfect fiancé, wastes his cred and our warmth by spending his time in empty nonsense; rumor has it he used to be a pretty good actor, though who would know it from this?