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IN THE FINE Dan Jenkins novel this movie is loosely based on, the prefix semi- attached to an adjective was a sort of redneck oi vey-- thus semi-tough meant very tough indeed. Novels rarely come to the screen with the exact story line of the printed book--Jenkins described his trials with the screenplay in a recent Sports Illustrated article--but director Michael Ritchie has loaded up the old story of two country boys (and one country girl) who come to the city and make good with New York cocktail party jokes, including a sometimes flat parody of Erhardt's est, and the result is, well not exactly semi-bad, but still disappointing.
Burt Reynolds is the white running-back hero, Billy Clyde Puckett, Kris Kristofferson is his buddy, split end Shake Tiller, and Jill Clayburgh is the girl of their dreams, Miss Barbara Jane Bookman, a Phyllis George clone who looks to have maybe been Sigma Chi Sweetheart of 1962 at Ole Miss. And before this proceeds any further, the discriminating moviegoer should know that while Semi-Tough is at times an honestly funny film, it is also maddeningly sexist.
Ah, you think, and how could a film starring Burt Reynolds be any other way? This is unfair; Reynolds saves Semi-Tough, and the fault lies not with him but with Ritchie. Sunbelt attitudes toward women are hard to define; what you tend to forget is that Scarlett O'Hara was one tough old bitch. Barbara Jane Bookman, secure in her looks and her money, might have to take a lot of grief from her stud football-playing buddies, but by God, she should give as good as she gets, and the film never captures the uneasy jocularity that is a necessary part of sexual tension in the South. Even though Clayburgh's daddy supposedly owns the team. She melts like a dime cup of ice cream at 10 a.m. on a July day in Macon.
She gets precious little help, too, as Kristofferson sleepwalks through the movie. Which is another part of a problem--Billy Clyde and Shake no longer play for New York, but Miami. Their apartment is some set designer's idea of what a football player's dream home is like in New York, however, and it even has a pinball machine. No shotguns, but a lot of what look like Magritte prints on the walls. Kristofferson is not a worldly-wise country boy but a tuned-out meditation freak. There might be a few people down there somewhere who meditate--Tom Landry maybe, but he's in Dallas, where he coexists with Dealy Plaza, the largest airport, and the largest Baptist church in the world. Dallas is a sick town.
GIVEN THE WEAKNESSES of plot and characterization, Reynolds almost carries it off--and does carry away the movie. He has just enough cool, and a wonderful light-comic touch. One charge leveled at Ritchie has been that he tried to remake The Philadelphia Story with Too Tall Jones; given the frenetic wedding scene at the end that sounds plausible, and it might not have been a bad idea if he could have brought it off. Correspondingly, Reynolds looks to have borrowed at least a little from Cary Grant; when Kristofferson and Clayburgh shut the door, Reynolds acts dejected, kicks at air, throws himself down on a couch, and puts on a record. As Gene Autry comes on singing, "Back in the saddle again..." he pirouettes madly across the room to turn it off--that scene alone may be worth the price of admission. Similarly, a scene in which he sits in the bathroom taping his book is hilarious. Constantly interrupted, he finally tells an offending party to "shit and shove it under the door," Cary Grant with a fine measure of '70s Bogart.
The supporting cast is fine, considering what they had to work with. Robert Preston as Big Ed Bookman is a blustering, stupendously stupid man; as played, the millionaire owner of a pro football team probably couldn't pass a driver's test. He has his moments--asking God in the Super Bowl if since he's a sinner, God is going to fuck him. Clint Murchison of the Cowboys has probably done that, albeit silently. It would be nice if owners were that dumb; the throwback owner of the Giants, Wellington Mara, probably is but not the Murchisons, Hunts, and Robbies of today. David Merrick depends on an abrasive charm as the Werner Erhardt figure who is a kind of camp follower cum guru, but in the end he is just abrasive. In fairness to Ritchie, the great part of the movie that involves Merrick and his est-parody probably had to be inserted quickly as the NFL refused to lend much assistance to his movie. Semi-Tough the novel never contained much actual football in the first place, Semi-Tough the movie even less, because only Joe Robbie of the Miami Dolphins would cooperate with the production.
IN THE END, Semi-Tough falls short of the goal line. Ritchie packs his scenes with slapstick asides, including Korov the place-kicker whose only lines are in Russian; these are cruder than Altman but at times exhilaratingly funny. But Ritchie still doesn't know how to use actors--he should hope six-foot eight, 275-pound Doug Atkinson, the prototype for Jenkins' defensive end T.J. Lambert, doesn't see this movie. Ritchie's biggest mistake might have been firing Ring Lardner Jr. as the scenarist. Lardner's credits include M.A.S.H. and he probably genetically knows more about pro athletes than Ritchie. Kristofferson is woefully in need of direction; his lines are often on the order of "Sounds good, B.J.," delivered in his nasal "Me and Bobby McGee" tones. Kristofferson played college football at Pomona in California, too often without his helmet, as somebody said of another famous American actor, and that must have been why he was cast.
But Burt Reynolds is very good, the best he's ever been; he gets three yards on his own. Reynolds made what should be called the best football movie ever in The Longest Yard, and he seems to grow more in every film. I have a suspicion that 30 years from now we may dredge up all those old sunbelt epics like W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, Deliverance, etc., and cherish them the way we do Casablanca now, if maybe for a different reason. For the present, though, Semi-Tough is only semi-good, in the fullest sense of the word.
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