Starting Over (1979)

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Starring: Burt Reynolds, Jill Clayburgh, Candice Bergen, Charles Durning, Frances Sternhagen, Austin Pendleton.

Written by: James L. Brooks and (based on the novel) Dan Wakefield

Running Time: 105 mins

Original UK Cert: AA

Original US Release: 5th October 1979

One thing I like doing is making discoveries. I had heard of Starting Over, when it was first released here in 1980 but never seen it. So I took the plunge and decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did because not only did it make me laugh and I mean big belly laughs but it brought back some faith in romantic comedies and proof that it doesn’t have to be between ‘just-out-of’-school, obnoxious intellectuals’ but adults.

Phil Potter is a man who’s lost. His wife, Jessica, a wannabe songwriter, wants a divorce, so Phil, who hasn’t been alone for years, finds himself in a new apartment, joins a divorced men group and is going to start over again. His brother introduces him to Marilyn, a school teacher, who has her own rules when dating divorced men. Rules that soon go out the window as their relationship grows. Then Jessica comes back on the scene, wanting a second chance, which confuses Phil even more.

This is a film that, while dealing with the subject of divorce, a fairly new concept for the late seventies, doesn’t necessarily hinge everything onto it. It allows the characters to grow and define themselves, something that most other films of this genre don’t. So we get to see the main protagonists move the story along and you can see the predicament that Phil has: he has fallen for Marilyn but he cannot get his ex out of his head.

Scripted by James L. Brooks, who went on to make Terms Of Endearment and Broadcast News, the film is full of nicely observed comments and though not bulging with elaborate set pieces, the film has enough quality scenes between the cast to not make you miss them. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, not known for romantic comedies, more heavy, thought-provoking thrillers like Klute, The Parallax View and All The President’s Men, it’s nice to see a lighter touch that still has enough dramatic punch when it needs to.

The film’s driving force comes from the three leads. Burt Reynolds, not known for his romantic leads, nicely underplays the every man Phil, a somewhat shy and retiring guy, dressed in comfortable jumper, tie and jacket combo, who doesn’t quite know what to do in his situation. Reynolds is completely playing against type, especially during this period of his career when the Smokey And The Bandit were making him the biggest box office draw in the world. He handles it with maturity and subtlety and it’s a nice change of direction for the star.

Candice Bergen, as Jessica, is hilarious. As a woman desperate to make it in the song writing world, even  though she cannot sing, she is terrific. One particular scene, when she sings to Phil a song she wrote about their relationship, literally had me in hysterics. Charles Durning and Frances Sternhagen are perfect as Phil’s brother and sister-in-law who try to set Phil up and the scenes in the men’s divorce group could have easily had a movie all to themselves.

The real star is the delightful Jill Clayburgh as the slightly neurotic Marilyn. Clayburgh never got the true recognition she deserved and here she proves what a talented comedic actress she is. As a woman hurt so many times before, yet cannot help but fall in love at the drop of a hat, she defines her character beautifully, sometimes just by a look. She’s kooky, sweet and frustrating all in one package and it’s worth checking out just for her performance.

Starting Over isn’t the greatest romantic comedy ever and there are times that it does drag its feet slightly but it did surprise me and it made me laugh, which is always a bonus. It might be tricky to find but it is worth a look, especially if you have a free Sunday afternoon. It’s perfect to just sit back and enjoy.


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