Why am I so sure I’m in big trouble here?
— Marilyn (Jill Clayburgh), Starting Over
Watching an old film you heard was great and finding it only interesting can’t help but disappoint. Such was my experience with 1979’s Starting Over, wherein airplane magazine writer Phil (Burt Reynolds, by turns amused and blank) is torn between self-absorbed ex-wife Jessica (Candice Bergen) and his quirky, kind girlfriend Marilyn (Jill Clayburgh). Based on a novel by Dan Wakefield and adapted by James L. Brooks, the script ping-pongs between earnest drama and broad character strokes, before settling for a pat happy ending.
To the film’s credit, we wonder which woman Phil will choose, and, to a lesser degree, which he should choose. But not because we want both women to be happy: Jessica is one of those annoying types trying to find herself through “creativity,” and by sleeping with Phil’s boss and then asking for a divorce. As the film opens, Phil is trying to charm her out of that decision (“I swear to God, we’re getting a divorce when all we need is separate vacations”), while she’s claiming she has found her “voice” in songwriting. “It’s not like the painting and the photography,” she argues. “It’s not.”
Trouble is, she’s a terrible singer, demonstrated when Bergen screeches to comic effect (“This woman’s got a right to be more than a shadow of her man”) as Phil leaves their sleek apartment en route to his brother’s (Charles Durning) couch in Boston. The tune will haunt him. Set up on his first date in eight years, with a lascivious single mom (Mary Kay Place), Phil arrives to hear his ex’s now-hit song playing just behind the door, and as they wait for her babysitter to arrive, she sings a few bars herself. Gulp. His next date is Marilyn, whom Phil woos with straight talk: “I just wanna have dinner with somebody. Anybody. A person,” he explains with frustration. “I’m not gonna touch you. I might not even talk to you.” “Sounds perfect,” Marilyn says — and with that, she’s doomed.
Between dates, Phil attends a divorced men’s support group in a church basement, where he trades stories with the bitter and the hapless, like Paul (Austin Pendleton), who keeps marrying and divorcing the same woman. Phil confesses that for some reason he’s avoiding going to bed with Marilyn. “Maybe she’s special,” he supposes. “It’s possible, you know.” For her part, Marilyn struggles not to believe in such fluff. After they do sleep together, she wakes just after he’s left — and chases him out into the snow to lambaste him for treating her like a one-nighter. Reassuring her that he left a note and will see her the next night, he says, with affection, “If you can avoid it, I’d prefer you didn’t act crazy anymore.” Marilyn tells herself, “I think I could love this man.”
With Marilyn, the film captures the sting of loving someone despite knowing he is going to break your heart. Indeed, Phil is such a mess that we don’t know whether to pull for her to get what she wants from him, or to get out alive. He’s clearly not over his ex-wife, whose fitful reappearances both hinder and propel his new romance. When Jessica calls and interrupts Thanksgiving dinner, Phil describes Marilyn as a friend of his brother’s family. Does he really want Marilyn, or is he just trying to hold on to something? Neither is sure, and viewers aren’t, either, because Reynolds’ vacant countenance is impossible to read. Is he a smooth talker on a down turn? Or a schlubby nice guy who delivers the occasional good line? (While some kind writers have posited that Reynolds was too pigeonholed by his Smokey and the Bandit persona to parlay his Golden Globe nomination for Starting Over into an Academy Award nomination, as Clayburgh [best actress] and Bergen [supporting] deservedly did, nothing in his performance screams “Oscar!” to me.)
When Jessica shows up in a low-cut blouse, we see the familiarity and humor they share. They seem destined to sleep together, until Jessica hits PLAY on the tape deck and ridiculously sings along to her latest composition, “Better Than Ever” (lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager). “Have you lost your marbles?” Phil asks as the music fades out, freed (along with the script) by this full-on movie joke from making a decision.
Still, the genre demands a rupture in his new romance, in order to test the pull of his old one. Disappointingly, cinematic rules and conventions take over in the film’s final stretch, granting Phil his big epiphany (“I need terrific, I need wonderful, I need love”) and propelling him into one last grand romantic gesture. While he’s not as eloquent in this climactic scene as was Jerry Maguire (a more recent incarnation of the character), he gets the job done. Though it’s staged as a victory over lowered expectations, the opposite of settling, it sure looks like a movie compromise to me.