In ''Rumor Has It . . .," an embarrassing romantic comedy from Rob Reiner, Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston) is having a pre-midlife crisis. She doesn't know what she wants and barely understands who she is.
Sarah is engaged to a businessman (Mark Ruffalo, who else?) whom she loves, but only ''theoretically." Her job is a drag, and her family is a mystery to her: They like tennis, she doesn't; her affable father (Richard Jenkins) is a Republican, she isn't. She's in such a funk that she can't even bring herself to have bathroom sex with her fiancé on the flight from New York to Pasadena for her sister's wedding.
In a revelation sure to delight literalists and Erica Jong fans, Sarah has a fear of flying. But more relevant to these proceedings, she also might have a different, sexier dad. Apparently, her late mother had a weeklong fling before she wed. She was pregnant at the ceremony, and the affair may have inspired Charles Webb to write a book called ''The Graduate," in which Sarah's boozy, indomitable grandma (Shirley MacLaine) figures prominently as a temptress named Mrs. Robinson.
''Rumor Has It . . ." has a nifty premise whose endless comic, sexual, and cultural possibilities Reiner has no apparent interest in exploring. Once Sarah jets to San Francisco to confront the man (Kevin Costner) who may have knocked up her mother, romance breaks out like a rash and the movie turns to goop.
Reiner has banished what wit there might have been in Ted Griffin's script and replaced it with romantic-comedy banalities that leave Sarah looking selfish and dim. (Of course her fiancé catches her smooching another man.) The film makes a creaky parallel between its heroine and Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist in Webb's book and Mike Nichols's 1967 movie. They're both lost souls. Benjamin was adrift after college, in the ''plastics" era. Sarah is adrift in 1997, at, the movie asserts, the dawn of ''a major search engine." Otherwise, it's a tenuous connection.
Aniston is in decent form for the part. She's not meant to hawk anything harder than cotton candy. But no funny lady's charisma can compensate for Reiner's flatulent way with the material. And while MacLaine is scary-fabulous (imagine Agnes Moorehead revisited), ''Rumor Has It . . ." is actually a vanity project for its director and his political bent.
Yes, that's Reiner standing next to the billionaire businessman Costner plays in a framed picture alongside photos of Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro. Costner's character is paid lots of money to give speeches in which he makes stupefying conflations between Che Guevara and the rise of the Internet. The movie sticks with a pre-millennial setting presumably because Reiner, an outspoken Democrat with electoral aspirations, couldn't stand to set the picture during a Bush administration.
Why is a Jennifer Aniston vehicle talking politics? Why is it name-dropping politicians? Reiner, who took over directing duties from the movie's writer in a sort of production coup (very Castro), seems to be trying to give his romantic comedy a degree of resonance, the way, for instance, that in 1975 Hal Ashby's ''Shampoo" turned a connection between a Warren Beatty sex romp and the 1968 presidential election into a comedy for the ages. ''Rumor Has It . . ." is too shallow to support an idea weightier than its nutty assertion about marriage: It's the only way for men to know women really dig them.
''Rumor Has It . . ." can't be bothered to pay tribute to the breakneck style of Nichols's ''The Graduate." The new movie is as stultifying to watch as Nichols's was exhilarating.
Reiner's last good movie was ''The American President," and that was 10 years ago. In the interim, his films (''Ghosts of Mississippi," ''The Story of Us," ''Alex and Emma") have been smug trials of an audience's patience. He's out of touch, which is distressing news for his imagined electorate. How could anyone expect him to reform government when for a decade he's been serving up the same-old same-old at the movies?
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.