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DVD Review: Starting Over

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James L. Brooks has proven time and time again his comedic genius as a writer, producer, and director.

If you don’t believe me, go back and watch the “Chuckles” episode from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and you’ll see comedy writing at its finest. Or turn on FOX for a helping of a few episodes of The Simpsons, which I’ve become a fan of over the years because my kids were so obsessed with the show when it came on the air in 1989. Now, I’m the one who’s obsessed. Brooks has earned his praise and numerous honors, which include a few Oscars for Terms of Endearment, as well as nods for Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets.

Unless you are a movie buff, a die-hard Burt Reynolds fan or both, you may have never come across Brooks’ first screenwriting achievement, Starting Over, before. I had a chance to revisit the film (on DVD since 2005) for the first time since its 1979 theatrical release and it’s a splendid comedy, filled with plenty of heart, humor, and warmth to lead you through a relaxing night at home.

I have a special place in my heart for this film, for you see this happens to be the film I saw with a young lady named Mary Elizabeth Ford in 1979. She eventually became Mary Elizabeth Ford Clay, my wife.

It was our third date and she just loved Burt Reynolds (still does). Loved, loved, loved him. I will admit, I liked Smokey and the Bandit and thought he was riveting in Deliverance, but the guy didn’t keep me up nights (me, jealous?). But I adored Mary, so I agreed to take her to this new film of his.

To my suprise and delight, I loved the film and Reynolds’ performance. In fact, I would say that it’s the finest performance of his career. Reynolds himself has stated in interviews that his performance as the low-key Phil Potter is one of his all time favorites.

The film was directed by the accomplished and sorely missed Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Klute, The Parallax View) who showed a flair for romantic comedy, coaxing excellent performances Reynolds, as well as the superb Jill Clayburgh and Candice Bergen.

Reynolds plays Phil Potter, a magazine writer-turned-writing teacher who has been informed by his beautiful but flaky wife Jessica (Bergen) that she wants a divorce. Without much recourse, he seeks solace from his bear-hugging psychiatrist brother Mickey (Charles Durning) and sister-in-law Marva (Frances Sternhagen), who eventually set him up on a blind date with Marilyn (Clayburgh), a mild-mannered, rather dowdy nursery school teacher. The movie then becomes a clever seesaw of Phil vacillating between his wife and potential new love interest. What remains fresh about the movie is how Pakula and Brooks keep the focus on the flawed characters and less on the predictable cliches about the awkward consequences of divorce.

Reynolds has never given a more subtle, genuinely humane performance than he does here. Cast completely against type, he makes Phil’s uncertainty feel real — even at the risk of losing audience sympathy in the way he treats Marilyn, no matter how inadvertently.

In the afterglow of her luminous work in Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, Jill Clayburgh (Oscar nominated here) again demonstrates the malleable quality and fierce intelligence to make her deglamorized Marilyn an attractive and credibly cautious woman. In a wonderfully deadpan performance, Candice Bergen (also Oscar nominated) supplies the movie’s biggest laughs as the narcissistic Jessica, especially when she sings with uproariously tone-deaf panache to seduce Phil in her hotel room.

Of the supporting cast, Charles Durning brings out all the unctuous support that Mickey can muster and a scene-stealing Frances Sternhagen is adorable as Marva, who is more than anxious to provide Phil emotional support when he is down and out.

Sadly, the 2005 DVD has no extras.

Seeing this film again brought back a lot of nice memories. Thanks to my daughter Dianne for finding it on Amazon.com. 

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  • Great review. Thanks for reminding us that 70s cinema wasn’t just about Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever. Burt Reynolds is an accomplished but underrated light comedian — we could do with a few more of those right now. It’s definitely time for a Jill Clayburgh revival.

    If I have seen Starting Over it was so long ago that I don’t remember it. Perhaps I’ll try a Pakula double bill with The Parallax View.

  • Kathleen Banfield

    My husband and I love this movie! I am a big fan of Mr. Reynolds and I have started a “Facebook” group called “Burt Reynolds for SNL host”. I would like nothing more than for this group idea to become a reality and for America to be reminded of the legend that he is.

  • WARNING: Based on the evidence, which he has not bothered to refute, Joseph Arthur Clay is a plagiarist. See here.