Judge Dennis Prince would like to give you this opportunity to share your innermost fears and apprehensions of loving relationships. Or, you can opt for a root canal instead.
There's nothing out there for you, Jesse, 'cept me in a different suit. You think what we have together is blocking you from something. My God, we're getting a divorce when all we really need is separate vacations.
You don't understand.
Look, when I go out that door, what are you going to do?
I'll probably work on my song. It's not like the painting and the photography; it's not. You just have a thing about my voice. I've gotten a lot of terrific feedback on my songs. What, you don't think so?
It's just the word—'feedback'—it's a stupid word.
It was 1979, that sort of year in-between that marked the end of one tumultuous decade while teeing up the equally tumultuous next. It was a time to bid "goodbye" to your communal counterparts of the '70s and shout "hello" to the Me Generation of the materialistic '80s. Interestingly, Starting Over was a film that seems to have unwittingly captured this torn co-existence; of wanting to hang on to the familiar past while anxiously eager to embrace an uncertain future. Although the film garnered two highly coveted Oscar nominations—Best Actress (Jill Clayburgh) and Best Supporting Actress (Candice Bergen)—it's a picture that still goes unnoticed by many. To those familiar with its razor-sharp humor and satisfying sentimentality, proclamations of "It's about time!" rise up with this long-overdue DVD release. To those who have yet to enjoy the opportunity to peer into the wacky world of divorce, dating, and the dysfunctional everything-in-between, then it's time you start in to Starting Over.
Facts of the Case
Phil Potter (Burt Reynolds, The Longest Yard) isn't quite sure what to do with himself. After years of marriage to the sweet yet completely self-absorbed Jessica (Candace Bergen, Murphy Brown), Phil finds he's out on the street as his soon-to-be ex-wife shows him the door following her tryst with another man. How this has become Phil's fault is anybody's guess since it makes no sense at all. Then again, in Jessica's private little world, it apparently makes perfect sense, she who seizes every moment to discover her true self and realize her most ardent fantasies. While Phil still pines to partake of "Jesse's" saucy sensuality he has neither time nor interest to try to figure out what could possibly be going in this vacuous woman's head. Jesse's mind is made up and Phil needs to find his way out of this odd relationship before Jesse starts on again with her saccharine songwriting and abysmal singing—"I'm sure I've cried more tears than you-ooh-ooh, but I've gotta be more than a shadow of my mannnnnnnn-nuh."
Phil makes his way to the home of his brother, Michael (Charles Durning, Tootsie) and his meddling-yet-well-meaning wife, Marva (Frances Sternhagen, Outland) for a dose of overbearing compassion and soul-baring psychology. Naturally, Michael and Marva set about to host a blind dinner-date between Phil and their single friend and nursery school teacher, Marilyn Holmberg (Jill Clayburgh, An Unmarried Woman). Phil's smitten, much out of his own intolerable loneliness, while insecure Marilyn attempts to thwart his well-mannered advances else wind up victim herself of a failed relationship on the rebound. The two agree to date and wind up in a clumsy courtship that full of highs, lows, and the persistent presence of Jesse, who still wants everything out of life, maybe even Phil.
Honestly, I've never been the sort for romantic comedies, yet I found myself completely under the cynical-but-sweet spell of Starting Over at the worldly age of seventeen when I saw it as the second feature on a double-bill with Sidney Sheldon's Bloodline (yet another very odd pairing). Within the first five minutes, it was clear this would be a bitingly clever comedy where Burt Reynolds would amaze us with an Oscar-worthy performance of his own, Candice Bergen would titillate us with her, well, those, and Jill Clayburgh would look cute as a button while attempting to save her own butt in the midst of this duel of divorcees. And just when you figure this will play out as a subtle comedy with clever one-liners strewn along the way, watch out for Bergen as she belts out her embarrassingly bombastic and erratic vocals in a completely unbridled and over the top performance that will have you laughing both with and at her.
The picture does remain true to the romantic-comedy formula that we've come to know and anticipate, complete with conflict, commiseration, and ultimate closure. The journey is severely metered—almost tepid at times—yet the character development and unprecedented outbursts along the way make for a compelling and arguably voyeuristic peep into the life of a troubled man who seems to be the only sane one among these lunatics—except for the fact that he can't get over his ex-wife. Veteran screen and television writer James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Spanglish) hits all the right notes here, especially with the feature-long gag of Jesse's horrid singing. Oscar nominated director Alan J. Pakula (All the President's Men, Sophie's Choice) ensures the deliberate pace will leave us feeling trapped among these maladjusted misfits yet coaxes out some truly top-notch performances from all involved, be they leading or supporting actors and actresses.
Some have said it was criminal for Reynolds to have been overlooked at Oscar time and there's no argument here. He perfectly sheds his rugged machismo and even a bit of his well-chronicled sex appeal to deliver one of the best-managed and well-timed comedic performances of his career. From the precise delivery of his lines to the equally deft vacant expressions of a man struggling to regain control of his situation, Reynolds shows a rare side that is still among his best work ever. Bergen, as already noted, is outright loony in her portrayal of one of the most annoying women you'd ever meet. Clayburgh is perfectly vulnerable in her role yet manages to summon up some surprising spunk to her own credit that plays perfectly off all involved. And special recognition goes to Charles Durning, Frances Sternhagen, and Austin Pendelton (What's Up Doc?). Oh, and keep a keen eye open to spot a young Kevin Bacon.
During the early 1980s, you could occasionally find Starting Over playing the pay-channel circuit (HBO, Cinemax, and others) yet it was often difficult to find on home video. Its release seemed to be spotty, with VHS tapes coming and going without much fanfare or longevity of circulation. Finally, Paramount Home Video has granted us enthusiasts with a long-overdue DVD release which, sadly, is apathetically tossed our way in a typical stripped-down edition, the same indifferent treatment the studio seems to utilize when releasing back-catalog titles. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, finally affording us a look at the full image that's only been available in hatchet-job pan-and-scan versions up until now. The image itself is as vibrant as it's ever been yet exhibits a near-constant level of grain inherent in the original source material. With this comes a bit of softness at times, yet I find this preferable over the alternative of a heavy-handed edge-enhanced abomination. The color palette is rather muted throughout the feature, yet that too is inherent of the original production design. The audio comes by way of a clean if not constrained Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix. A touch of stereo could have easily widened the soundstage a bit, but as the dialogue remains intelligible throughout I won't complain too loudly. There are no extras, and for that I will air my disappointment. Surely a feature commentary could have been arranged with cast and crew and, at the very least, the original theatrical trailer? C'mon, Paramount!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Look, if you're not in the mood for a romantic-comedy, albeit one that tips the genre on end nicely along the way, stay away from this one. It's all about the angst, anguish, and arrested development of a collection of people who try to make sense of love, sex, marriage, and other forms of high anxiety. If you're emphatic that this isn't your cup of tea, don't bother. However, I once thought that too, yet Starting Over has remained on my Top Twenty list for over two decades. I urge you to give it a look.
Is it right to laugh at the emotional pain and turmoil of others? Of course not, unless they're already heartily laughing at themselves. Clearly, the very self-conscious and self-aware ensemble of Starting Over is in on the joke and appears to be laughing right alongside us. If you've felt the ache of heartbreak and the dull throbbing pain of dating again, then you'll find a bit of daffy perspective here. I consider this disc to be a strong buy for your video library but, if you're uncertain, at least give it a rent. You'll feel better in the end, I'm sure.
The cast and crew of Starting Over are found not guilty of any crime (their own personal foibles notwithstanding). The crew at Paramount Home Video, however, is sentenced to an extended session with Dr. Phil to attempt to understand their role in the very important relationship with filmgoers and DVD consumers. Let the record show that the low overall judgment for this disc is not the fault of the film or its filmmakers but, rather, that of the studio.
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