Starting Over January 23, 2023
Alan J. Pakula
Mary Kay Place
1 Hr., 46 Mins.
n the rare occasion that Burt Reynolds’ upper lip is baby smooth in a movie we realize how much we tend to imbue in the actor’s trademark mustache: playfulness, virility, machismo, a certain mischievousness. When it’s gone, we can infer the film spurring its removal means we’ll be finding Reynolds in a more serious mood than he might have been in in, say, Gator (1976) or Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Starting
Over (1979), one of few projects in which Reynolds is stache-free, isn’t humorless. But its emotional stakes are too high to too comfortably call it a comedy. In it, Reynolds leans not into his capacity for wily charm but on-screen vulnerability.
He’s the one starting over. It’s kindled by his character’s wife, Jessica (Candice Bergen), who at the beginning of the movie asks for a divorce. She’s been having an affair. She’s also a singer-songwriter — a bad one whose lyrics can be counted on to be expository and mawkish though not bad enough to not have prospective singles seriously considered by labels — who thinks staying in this marriage will fuck up her chances of professional ascendance. Reynolds, playing a middling, pretty mild-mannered writer named Phil whose bylines most often appear in airplane magazines, swiftly relocates from New York to Boston (his brother and his wife, played by Charles Durning and Frances Sternhagen, live there). He gets a part-time teaching job at a local college to help pay the bills. In the evenings he attends a support group for divorced men whose varied-in-age members ponder the lonely lives they hadn’t prepared for. Some are without any romantic prospects; others consider getting back together with spouses they thought they were done with.
Phil struggles to get over Jessica — he hears not tone-deafness but sweetness when she sings — but unexpectedly he starts swaying in a more productive direction when his brother and sister-in-law set him up with Marilyn (Jill Clayburgh), a nursery-school teacher getting her master’s. The meet-cute isn’t promising: Marilyn mistakes Phil for a potential rapist when they unwittingly walk in the same direction on a dark and empty street at the same time for their date. But their subsequent nights out are, even though Marilyn is at first reluctant since her last boyfriend also was a recent divorcé who turned out not to be as over his ex as he claimed.
Phil and Marilyn get to a place where the latter grudgingly admits that she feels like she isn’t breathing right without him. But things get emotionally complicated in the sporadic moments where it seems like Jessica might after all regret separating from her longtime husband. Phil so deeply loves Jessica that in the wake of scenes where she’s done something we wouldn’t think to consider anything other than insufferable, he might admit to someone that he’s never been so attracted to her. James L. Brooks’ script has an effective, naturalistic funniness — though Jessica is the kind of character that can, particularly when she’s earnestly singing, adhere more closely to a caricature of delusional self-seriousness that would feel more in place in a farce — but it’s just as good at seriously reconciling with the capricious, difficult emotional terrain its two leads are navigating. Reynolds is disarmingly touching as a man never quite as healed from his soon-to-expire marriage as he thinks he is. Clayburgh, Oscar-nominated and a year out from her similarly premised star vehicle An Unmarried Woman (1978) (wherein she gets that movie’s equivalent of the Reynolds role), is even better, maybe the film’s most affecting character as a woman always braced for the romantic worst — the possibility that she is yet again opening her heart to someone who will actually prove not as receptive as she’d been led to believe.
Part of me wants to find Starting Over’s happy ending a little too easy, a little too sentimentally rom-commy for a film otherwise so attuned to the various anguishes of post-divorce dating and its attendant anxieties: the worries about running out of time for family-making, the redefinition of friend groups. But in a genre rarely so invested in uncovering the kind of emotional candor Starting Over finds, the sentimentality feels just earned — hard-won — enough not to feel like a cop-out. B+