James L. Brooks was at the apex of his spectacular run as a TV showrunner when he penned his first theatrical feature, Starting Over. Adapted from a novel by Dan Wakefield, the movie is shot through with the same funny/sad humanism Brooks brought to his award-winning TV shows—The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, etc.—so even though Starting Over features a trio of brand-name actors and was helmed by A-lister Alan J. Pakula, the movie is primarily a showcase for Brooks’ sharp observations about human frailty. (Brooks and Pakula co-produced the picture.)
Stepping way outside his comfort zone and scoring with a charming performance, Burt Reynolds plays Phil Potter, a magazine writer who is abruptly dumped by his wife, Jessica (Candice Bergen), a beautiful narcissist embarking on a new career as a singer-songwriter. Suddenly thrown back into the dating scene, Phil takes solace in the company of his amiable brother, Mickey (Charles Durning), a touchy-feely psychiatrist. Mickey introduces Phil to divorced schoolteacher Marilyn Holmberg (Jill Clayburgh)—this happens during a funny scene involving mistaken identities and foul language—and they become a couple after a few false starts. However, their second-time-around romance is complicated when Jessica decides she wants Phil back.
Sensitively examining the complexities of relationships during an era of shifting gender roles, Starting Over is smart and touching, with likeable people riding the amusing currents of confusing situations. Brooks’ dialogue is incisive, and his ability to shift the tone of a scene from ominous to promising and back again is spectacular; although Starting Over is one of Brooks’ lightest efforts, essentially just a romantic comedy made with exemplary skill, the movie is filled with insights and wit.
It’s also filled with great acting. Reynolds ditches his usual macho swagger to play an everyman trying to find his way through life without hurting anyone—thereby ensuring he causes lots of inadvertent damage—while his female counterparts play to their respective strengths. Bergen revels in humiliating herself for the sake of a joke, especially when giving cringe-inducing performances of her character’s songs, and Clayburgh takes neuroticism to a Woody Allen-esque extreme. The women also create distinctly different personas, so it’s easy to see why Phil’s torn. Durning makes a great foil for Reynolds, and supporting players Frances Sternhagen, Mary Kay Place, and Austin Pendelton enliven minor roles.
Starting Over: GROOVY