Starting Over (1979)
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula.
Written by: James L. Brooks based on the novel by Dan Wakefield.
Starring: Burt Reynolds (Phil Potter), Jill Clayburgh (Marilyn Holmberg), Candice Bergen (Jessica Potter), Charles Durning (Mickey Potter), Frances Sternhagen (Marva Potter), Austin Pendleton (Paul), Mary Kay Place (Marie), MacIntyre Dixon (Dan Ryan).
The film opens with Paul (Burt Reynolds) and his wife Jessica (Candice Bergen) breaking up – she wants him to leave, he doesn’t want to, but does anyway – something made easier by the discovery that she has been unfaithful to him. As he leaves, the audience is treated to, for the first time, a hilariously bad song by Jessica, sung wonderfully awfully by Bergen – who is convinced she’s going to have a hit on her hands (and, of course, she’s right). Paul ends up moving to Boston to be near his brother (Charles Durning), and try and peace his life back together. It is his brother’s wife who introduces him to Marilyn (Jill Clayburgh) – a nursey school teacher, who at first doesn’t want to date Paul – she has had it with divorced guys –but eventually she relents. They seem perfect for each other – he even says as much to his “divorced men’s support group” – but is he really over Jessica? When she shows up in Boston one day, wanting him back, what will he do?
Reynolds is, I think, an underrated actor. Sure, he has done more bad movies than good (and some are downright horrible), but he was one of the biggest male movie stars of the 1970s for a reason. He has an effortless charm about him here – making the fact that women are drawn to him understandable. Bur Reynolds also does a fine job showing us Paul’s insecurity – his hesitation in jumping into bed with Marilyn, the way he loves her, but is still drawn to Jessica. Of the three leads, it is Reynolds who has the most screen time, and delivers the most subtle performance. His two female co-stars both got Oscar nominations – and they are both wonderful, but their roles give them more showoff moments. Bergen steals every scene she is in here – she is downright hilarious when she sings, and she is the right mixture of infuriating, alluring and annoying to make at least some of what Paul does plausible. Clayburgh is wonderful as Marilyn as well – a somewhat kooky woman, who is happy in her life alone without Paul before he arrives, but willingly lets her guard down – even if she fears being destroyed. Both women are able to convey at least some complexity underneath all the humor in the movie – and judging on the basis of this movie, it’s a shame neither was given a great role in a Woody Allen movie at some point. They would have nailed them.
The problem with the movie is mainly in Brooks’ screenplay. While his ear for dialogue was already well-tuned – there is never a doubt about who wrote the thing – the plot mechanics creak under the weight of all the clichés, and as the film progresses, the characters make decisions that just don’t make any sense – right up to the happy ending. I know that Brooks is dealing with romantic comedy standards here – but it makes for an uneasy mixture with the divorce drama he’s also writing. By the time he made Terms of Endearment, he had mastered this tricky comedy/drama tone he does so well (he perfected it in Broadcast News) – but here, whether it’s Pakula’s direction (he was a journeyman – but many a thriller journeyman) or more likely Brooks’ screenplay, the mix is off.
Starting Over is an interesting film – it’s interesting to watch Brooks before he perfected his style, it’s interesting to see Pakula try his hand at comedy, and it has three performances that help paper over the films rough patches – mostly (as great as Clayburgh is, I have a tough time with that last scene in the movie). It’s mainly been forgotten – and there’s a reason for that. But it was also an Oscar nominated hit in 1979 – and there was a reason for that as well.