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I sat down to watch Starting Over, a movie I was certain would be outdated, corny, trite, and patently self-absorbed. I don't really expect all that much from the "divorce comedies" of the late 70s & early 80s, so I had my Expectation Meter set pretty low for this Burt Reynolds comedy. Frankly I thought it would be an absolute chore.
But then something happened. I noticed that Burt Reynolds was giving a sweet and sensitive performance, that leading lady Jill Clayburgh was given some dialogue with real wit and insight, and that the flick, aside from the outmoded music and the silly clothes, seemed like it could have been produced just last year.
And since I was only paying half-attention during the movie's opening credits, it was one quick trip to the IMDb that showed me why I was probably enjoying Starting Over so much: Written by James L. Brooks & directed by Alan J. Pakula -- two filmmakers I've always admired quite a bit. Brooks is, of course, the driving force behind movies such as Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As It Gets. Mr. Pakula directed All the President's Men, Sophie's Choice, and Presumed Innocent (among several others) before he was killed in a tragic car accident in 1998.
So with early contributions from two soon-to-be extremely well-regarded filmmakers, it's not that big a surprise to learn that Starting Over is such a disarmingly engaging romantic comedy.
Reynolds plays Phil Potter, a man recently divorced from the subtly narcissistic Jessica (Candice Bergen). Jill Clayburgh plays Marilyn Holmberg, a mild-mannered sweetheart of a nursery-school teacher. And you already know where Starting Over is headed: Phil's brother (Charles Durning) and sister-in-law (Frances Sternhagen) set Phil and Marilyn up on a blind dinner-date, and the story moves on from there. Nothing flashy or earth-shaking; just a good-natured and rather insightful look at the way in which romance needs to be rekindled once a man's broken heart begins to heal.
Scan your eyes across the background of Starting Over and you're bound to notice a heaping handful of familiar faces in supporting roles: Austin Pendleton as a dizzy divorcee, Mary Kay Place as Phil's first (somewhat failed) date, Jay O. Sanders and Wallace Shawn as a pair of support-group guys ... it's just fun to pick out all the character actors! (Plus I swear I saw Kevin Bacon in one scene!)
Starting Over is a whole lot better than most of the divorce-centric comedies of this ilk, mainly because it focuses on the characters and not the act of divorce itself. Both Ms. Clayburgh and Ms. Bergen received Academy Award nominations for their work here, but it's Burt Reynolds who delivers a heretofore unseen sensitive side ... without ever becoming sheepish, sappy, or maudlin. He's the absolute backbone of the movie, and when you're talking about a James Brooks screenplay as directed by Alan Pakula that features two Oscar-nominated leading ladies -- that's some pretty high praise indeed.
Video: Paramount back-catalog time, which means an as-good-as-can-be-expected widescreen (1.85:1) anamorphic transfer. You'll notice some grain in the night-time scenes, but overall the transfer is actually quite solid across the board.
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono track, which delivers the frequent dialogue in fine form. It certainly won't blow your speakers down, but the aural presentation is more than adequate enough.
One of the most enjoyable things about digging through these old movies is that, every once in a while, one of 'em really surprises you -- when you were just sure it was going to be a chore to get through. 1979's Starting Over succeeds with very little effort, thanks mainly to a trio of fantastic lead performances, but also because the movie's about the people and not the then-oh-so-topical act of divorce.
And just try not to laugh during Candice Bergen's drop-dead hilarious singing scene.