Starting Over (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Jun 10, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Starting Over (Blu-ray Review)


Alan J. Pakula

Release Date(s)

1979 (April 30, 2024)


Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B

Starting Over (Blu-ray)

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Romantic comedies have usually proved to be reliable box office winners, especially when cast with charismatic stars. Starting Over stars Burt Reynolds, Jill Clayburgh, and Candice Bergen in a cross between a romantic triangle and tug of war.

Phil Potter (Reynolds, Boogie Nights) is reluctantly separating from his wife, Jessica (Candice Bergen, Rich and Famous), until she tells him she had an affair with her boss. But Jessica is not leaving Phil to be with another man. She wants to stretch her creative wings as a singer-songwriter. Lacking a social rudder and depressed, Phil finds solace with his brother Mickey (Charles Durning, Dog Day Afternoon) and sister-in-law Marva (Frances Sternhagen, Julie and Julia).

Late one night, Phil is walking toward his brother’s home behind a young woman who just happens to live on the same block. Fearing this stranger is about to attack her, she lashes out at him verbally and sprints away. When Phil gets to his brother’s house, there’s the same woman, being comforted by Mickey and Marva for having just faced down a possible mugger and rapist. The woman is Marva’s good friend Marilyn Holmberg (Jill Clayburgh, An Unmarried Woman). After the misunderstanding is cleared up, Marilyn finds herself attracted to Phil. Since Phil has nothing else to do, he repeatedly asks to take her out. She keeps refusing, wary of getting involved with a freshly divorced man, but finally gives in and the date goes well.

Soon, they’re a couple and they move in together, but this is the very moment Jessica returns. She’s now the writer of a hit single but can’t enjoy her success without somebody to love, and she’s certain that Phil is the only man she’s ever going to want. Phil, never having completely gotten over Jessica, is now in a quandary and runs the risk of alienating both of them.

Director Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men) and screenwriter James L. Brooks deal with a fraught situation, interpolating moments of levity to lighten the mood, and basically succeed in portraying Phil’s plight. Movies about divorce often show the toll it takes on the wife, but here things are reversed. Phil doesn’t know what to do with himself since he hasn’t been single for years and just longs for someone to have dinner with. Since Jessica initiated the divorce, our sympathy tends to lie with Phil. Jessica, a wealthy dilettante whose current artistic obsession is pop music, is designed in the early part of the film as an object of ridicule. By contrast, Clayburgh is a down-to-earth kindergarten teacher, sensible, sensitive, and cautious about pursuing a relationship with Phil.

Brooks’ dialogue sounds natural and the humor derives from situations rather than one-liners, not surprising considering that his greatest achievements were in TV sitcoms. But for a romantic comedy, the comic moments are pretty sparse. There are long stretches in which the film is more dramatic than funny. However, the script does create a fully fleshed-out character in Marilyn. As Clayburgh plays her, the character seems authentic in spite of her exaggerated angst.

Reynolds does a good job underplaying when he could have pounced on the funny scenes to make them overly broad and exaggerated. His steady demeanor during Phil’s initial depression and later uncertainty is broken only by a panic attack when Jessica reappears. Reynolds conveys loneliness, sadness, an eagerness to connect with another human being, and contentedness mostly through physical expression rather than words. He has the gift of allowing the camera to see inside him.

Bergen, sexy and alluring, displays her comic chops in the early scenes when her Jessica breaks out into a song she has written, screeching off-key with unfettered enthusiasm as Phil looks on in astonishment. Her histrionic “singing” nearly steals the picture. Later, she becomes the irresistible seductress as she attempts to convince Phil they’re meant to be together.

Mary Kay Place (Private Benjamin) turns in a terrific supporting performance as Marie, a divorced woman with two kids whom Phil takes on a date after Marilyn refuses him. Frazzled, a permanent smile on her face, and overly talkative, she plays desperation with joyous abandon. Marie wants to make a good impression but she’s awkward in her obvious attempts. Though the character might have been plucked from a TV sitcom, Place makes her few scenes comic highlights.

Unfortunately, the film runs out of both dramatic and comic steam well before the ending. Some editing would have helped streamline the proceedings and tighten the pace. As it is, the film is particularly hurt by the final half-hour, which coasts to a lethargic denouement that’s telegraphed much earlier.

Starting Over was shot by director of photography Sven Nykvist on 35 mm film with Panaflex camera and lenses by Panavision, and presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Blu-ray features a new HD master by Paramount Pictures sourced from a 4K scan of the 35 mm original camera negative. There are no visual imperfections to impede enjoyment. The color palette is somewhat muted, even with primary hues. Most outdoor scenes were shot under overcast skies and appropriately suggest a wintery climate. Details are well delineated, especially in the piles of new furniture and accessories in Phil’s new bachelor apartment, candlelit dinners in restaurants, and Marilyn and Jessica’s clothing.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. The score by Marvin Hamlisch nicely suggests the growing relationship between Phil and Marilyn. Sound mixing of dialogue, music, and ambient sound provide a natural feel to the film.

Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics include the following:

  • Audio Commentary by Daniel Kremer and Howard S. Berger
  • Semi-Tough Trailer (2:11)
  • Stick Trailer (1:21)
  • Hustle Trailer (3:14)
  • Rent-A-Cop Trailer (2:16)
  • Diary of a Mad Housewife Trailer (2:54)
  • The Last Married Couple in America Trailer (2:35)
  • Continental Divide Trailer (2:52)
  • The Four Seasons Trailer (2:25)

Audio Commentary – Film historians Daniel Kremer and Howard S. Berger identify Starting Over as “the softer side of Alan J. Pakula, who’s known mostly for his political thrillers. His first film was The Sterile Cuckoo. Pakula is unafraid to let his camera linger on a scene, defying the rule that timing is crucial to comedy. There’s a distinctive look to the director’s visual style, which is analyzed by the commentators. Burt Reynolds had been experimenting with atypical romantic movies such as Nickelodeon and The End and wanted the role of Phil so badly that he agreed to screen test for director Pakula three times even though his two previous films had grossed $400 million. Reynolds made a name for himself with “hicksploitation” movies like Smokey and the Bandit but felt that the role of Phil was close to his own personality and he could play sophistication as well as “good ol’ boy.” In Starting Over, his performance shows the growth of Phil. Candice Bergen worked with a vocal coach but Pakula wanted her to make a complete fool of herself. Trusting Pakula completely, Bergen embraced the role and managed to create probably the worst musical performance on film of the last 45 years. She had been working to hone her comic chops in such films as T.R. Baskin and Getting Straight, and later scored a hit with her TV comedy series Murphy Brown, which premiered in 1998. Starting Over is based on a 1973 novel by Dan Wakefield, an observer of social mores. At the time the film was made (1979), the roles of men and women had changed. People saw themselves as individuals and didn’t want to live a life of inertia. The film is well modulated. When Jessica and Marilyn meet, they neutralize their anxieties. Reynolds’ character is the film’s catalyst—an “ironic trigger.” Starting Over is more complex than it first might appear. James L. Brooks’ screenplay shows the “emergence of a voice.” Brooks would go on to write the screenplays for Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets. His writing credits for TV include My Three Sons, That Girl, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Rhoda. Starting Over was made for $10 million and grossed $36 million, making it a modest hit. The critics “were polite.” Variety loved it, while Roger Ebert had reservations and Newsday gave it 3 1/2 stars. There were huge lines waiting to see the film on opening day. Jill Clayburgh and Candice Bergen were nominated for Academy Awards but Burt Reynolds was overlooked and was upset by the snub.

Starting Over has a good premise and first-rate performances from both the leads and the supporting cast. I just wish the film as a whole were equally good. It does address the messy problems of divorce, establishing a new relationship, and dealing with feelings for the former spouse. In the final third, however, it loses its way and meanders too long until the tidy conclusion.

- Dennis Seuling