(PG-13) 2.5 Stars

Ed Johnson-Ott

Jennifer Aniston stars as Sarah.

Rumor Has It is a mostly pleasant little romantic comedy with an intriguing premise that starts off fairly well, but quickly loses its way, only to sputter out near the end of its 96-minute running time. Advertisements for the film make it look like one of the juicier comedic offerings of the season, but the finished product is inconsequential.

The biggest plus for the movie is its cast. Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Costner, Shirley MacLaine and Mark Ruffalo are strong, likable personalities and they all do their best with the thin material given them. On the down side, director Rob Reiner shows none of the flair he displayed in films like This is Spinal Tap, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally and The American President. Of course, he had to work T.M. Griffin's screenplay, which simply doesn't cut the mustard.

You would think that, before giving the go-ahead to this film, someone in charge would have said, "Wait a minute. Griffin has a great idea, but he doesn't know what to do with it. We need a rewrite." Or maybe not. Maybe the powers that be liked the premise so much that they only gave the script a cursory glance.

The premise, by the way, is this: What if you found out that the novel-turned-film The Graduate was based on incidents involving your family? What if your boozy, acid-tongued grandmother was the inspiration for boozy, acid-tongued Mrs. Robinson? What about the character played by Dustin Hoffman, who was so famously seduced by Mrs. Robinson? Of course, the woman he really loved - and slept with - was Mrs. Robinson's daughter.

Mom?

The movie opens in 1997 (34 years after the book was published) as Sarah (Aniston) and her fiancé, Jeff (Ruffalo), fly from New York to Pasadena for the wedding of Sarah's sister, Annie (Mena Suvari). They seem like a nice couple, but she doesn't like her job (writing wedding notices and obits for a newspaper) and he doesn't want to have sex in the airplane bathroom. In real life, this would mean nothing, but in Script World it indicates that she longs for a more exciting life and he is an old stick-in-the-mud.

In Pasadena, Sarah learns that her late mother disappeared shortly before marrying sweet, decent Earl (Six Feet Under pappy Richard Jenkins) and spent a few wild days partying in Cabo. She also hears the rumors about The Graduate. After a little investigating, including a quick visit with an uncredited Kathy Bates, Sarah finds her head spinning. Her mother's affair was with a man named Beau Burroughs (Costner), whose initials are the same as the Dustin Hoffman character. Is it possible that Burroughs, now a computer giant, might be her biological father?

If this all sounds a bit busy, let me assure you that the movie keeps it simple. Too simple. Any depth given the characters is provided by the actors, who can only do so much. Jennifer Aniston is required to look pained or confused for most of the film, but the vibrancy that made her so appealing in Friends helps her to transcend the script. As the put-upon fiancé, Mark Ruffalo gives an affable performance, though he seems out of sync with the rest of the proceedings. Shirley MacLaine provides the most spirited performance - her character is as sharp, tart and slinky as one would expect the "real" Mrs. Robinson to be. And Kevin Costner's work here is as fine as it was in last year's underappreciated The Upside of Anger. He is aging nicely and appears comfortable being the sexy, slouching older guy.

The late critic Gene Siskel used to test movies by asking himself, "Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?" Rumor Has It fails that test, but I like Aniston, Ruffalo, MacLaine and Costner so much that I enjoyed the production despite its sketchy storyline and lame resolution. Of course, I didn't have to pay for a ticket.

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