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TODAY'S HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER hunts for film scripts like Nero once combed for concubines, but while the Roman mogul's search uncovered ample talent, the Sunset Boulevard set's has unearthed little. The insatiable public demand for commercial properties so far outstrips the screenwriters' meager production that producers are forced to fall back on proven story ideas. The resulting list of products reads like a Porcellian Club roster--Godfather II, Jaws 2, Rocky II, and Gone with the Wind II.
Two years ago Paul Mazursky presented Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman, the story of a not-so-gay divorcee who on her own vanquished the neuroses of Manhattan. Enter the flipquel. Alan Pakula flips the sex of the divorce victim, alters the plot a bit, and calls the new film Starting Over. Burt Reynolds stars alongside Clayburgh and Candice Bergen in this film which, unlike its prototype, deserves no more praise than a cute, melodramatic, made-for-T.V., movie.
This is no accident. James Brooks, who invented The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda gets credit for the screenplay of Starting Over, his first feature. The movie entertains, appropriately, for 30 minutes, and then collapses into a contrived drama that begs for a laugh-track.
Even before the opening credits, Jessica (Bergen) has kicked hubby Phil Potter out of their New York apartment and begun to sing. She sings like a gelded Al Jolson. Potter, a writer, ("my stuff is in those airplane magazines right behind the barf bags") escapes to Cambridge. Potter is believable, if wimpy, when he sits in the shadows of his bachelor pad and listens to "The Way We Were." At his brother's urging, he joins a divorced-men's therapy group where one ex-husband plans to marry the same woman for the fourth time and another dreams, at 71, about liver-spotted female hands reaching out to squeeze the last drops from his body. His brother also sets him up with Marilyn, (Clayburgh) a nursery schoolteacher, who cold-shoulders him.
Potter suffers nobly the swingers and narrow-minded women of the outrageous singles scene for several weeks, but his bachelor life is not to be. He sprints to call Marilyn, assuring her that he wants only companionship, not sex. They date. Potter reacts shyly to his first post-marital kiss but returns the next night to find Marilyn setting a candlelight dinner for herself. "It looks like something you read in a book about how to be single," he kids, then whispers, "I want to have sex with you." They mate.
After sex the sparkle of their courtship evaporates, and Starting Over loses its appeal. Rather than give Reynolds the rein to flex his demonstrated talent for deadpan humor, Brooks script smothers him in pretentious sensitivity. Worse, the improbable plot twists like a Neil Simon rendition of The Courtship of Eddie's Father.
Predictably, Jessica reappears, dressed to seduce the Ayatollah. On the brink of luring Potter into her motel-room sack, she sings again--a cockroach doing Donna Summer. But bitchy glamour appeals to Potter; he wants to try life with Jessica again. In a bizarre scene meant to symbolize his anxiety about leaving Marilyn, Potter hyperventilates on a Bloomingdale's couch. This sequence seems to perplex Reynolds most of all. He looks lost portraying a character who has no control of his emotions.
Swearing to Marilyn that he will never again visit her. Potter heads back to Jessica's Halston bedroom and Zabar-stocked kitchen. A memorable camera shot pans their connubial bed as they make alex-comfort love while Candice chirps again--a disco duck on quaaludes. By now, the unhappy marriage of her voice and Marvin Hamlisch's music no longer amuses; it sickens--both us and Potter.
So like giant Weeble rebounding to its feet, Potter returns to Marilyn's doorstep. A scene in Boston Garden heralds the end of this opera: he proposes to Marilyn. Another unmarried man breaks ranks.
Pakula and Brooks hide one serious--and disturbing--social comment in the giggles of Potter's second-engagement bliss. In An Unmarried Woman, the heroine proudly disdained the need for a male companion. It seems, however, that Potter cannot go more than a month without a mate. Are we to infer that men who can't live without women are "lovable" and "sensitive?" Brooks, whose Mary Richards pioneered as television's securely single woman, sells single men short.
Foiled by the script, Reynolds gives an adequate performance, though even he cannot slurp, "I'm finding myself" and maintain a straight face Spacy Marilyn has little class and while Clayburgh's acting can be forceful, it pales beside her should-have-won-the-Oscar Unmarried performance. Candice Bergen is as gorgeous and haughty as Von Furstenberg at Studio 54, finally abandoning the revolting spriteliness of her Cie commercial persona.
Even if this film were consistently funny, it could not avoid ticketing as slick Hollywood escapism. No dumb palooka, Pakula has proven capable--with Klute and All the President's Men--of far worthier cinematic ventures. But given the dearth of screenplays in Hollywood, the flipquel will probably haunt us for years. Watch for Queen Kong.
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