Sunday, January 1, 2012

The End (1978)

          As written by TV veteran Jerry Belson and directed by Burt Reynolds, who also stars in the picture, The End is a nervy endeavor digging for jokes in the unlikely milieus of insanity, suicide, and terminal disease. The End is also among Reynolds’ most worthwhile ’70s movies, because instead of the car chases and redneck raunchiness that dominated much of his output during the era, The End features character-driven black comedy. At the beginning of the movie, Sonny Lawson (Reynolds) enjoys middle-class success and endures middle-class tribulations: His infidelities scuttled his marriage to Jessica (Joanne Woodward); he’s struggling to maintain a bond with his adolescent daughter, Julie (Kristy McNichol); and he’s confused about his relationship with a free-spirited young woman, Mary Ellen (Sally Field). So, when Sonny gets diagnosed with a terminal disease, he decides to kill himself rather than suffer a lingering demise.
          Belson’s droll script examines the various ways different people respond to Sonny’s decision; the script also features gentle moments with characters Sonny doesn’t bring into his confidence, like his amiably bickering parents (played by Myrna Loy and Pat O’Brien). Then, after Sonny botches his first suicide attempt, he gets thrown into an asylum and befriends a homicidal wacko, Marlon (Dom DeLuise), who becomes obsessed with helping Sonny shuffle off this mortal coil. Making a big creative jump forward from his directorial debut, the Southern-fried action flick Gator (1976), Reynolds shows a flair for light comedy, building elegant pacing and helping actors find easy rapport.
          He also does some of his very best comedic acting, pouring on the self-deprecating charm as a stud-turned-wimp who weeps when he gets his diagnosis and cringes at the idea of pain. His enjoyable turn is complemented by several deft supporting performances: comedy pros Norman Fell, Carl Reiner, and David Steinberg are sharp in small roles; Robby Benson has an entertaining cameo as an inexperienced priest; Field (Reynolds’ offscreen paramour at the time) does her patented cute-and-sexy routine; Loy and O’Brien are a hoot; and Woodward effectively softens her usual suburban-harridan persona. DeLuise is hilarious in his first few scenes, but then overcompensates once his character slips into repetitive behavior. Plus, the movie itself loses energy as it nears the climax. However, Reynolds’ last big scene, an anguished negotiation with God played mostly as a voice-over monologue, concludes the movie in high style.


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