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DURING THE COURSE of 20 minutes with Barbara Walters last year, Burt Reynolds was asked what it was that he wanted most. He paused for a moment, knowing the answer but searching for the words that could best express his greatest desire.
"I want my Kramer vs. Kramer, my Ordinary People," he said finally. What Burt Reynolds wants is his Oscar. And not just to liven up his man-telpiece. One of the biggest box-office bonanzas of all time, Burt Reynolds wants only to be recognized as a fine actor of his time. It seems almost a paradox, for as he was uttering those selfsame words, Reynolds was basking in the glory of the Smokey and the Bandit films--box chase 'em variety. You could almost hear the Academy snickering. When Cannonball Run, the world's craziest automobile show since the Wacky Racers went off Saturday morning TV, turned into one of the summer's top grossing films, some members were probably left rolling in the aisles. Burt Reynolds a serious actor? Come on, be serious.
But Burt Reynolds is a serious actor, admittedly one who sometimes goes too far in order to give the people what they pay for, but serious nevertheless. And, as his latest film, Paternity, demonstrates, he is a very talented actor as well.
While he won't win any award nominations for this one (the footloose and fancy image lives on), he touches his audience with the same sentiment and humor that distinguished The Longest Yard, The End, and, especially Starting Over.
In fact, as Reynolds walks the streets of New York and through Central Park in his black trenchcoat, carrying a brief case and the morning paper, he seems just as he was in Starting Over, when he frequented the brick sidewalks of Beacon Street and perused the wares of Quincy Market in a brown London Fog. This is not to say, however, that Paternity equals the successes of Starting Over. Though the new film is enjoyable, inventive, occasionally very funny and emotionally-arousing, Starting Over was all that and much more so. Paternity suffers for lack of the romantic electricity that Reynolds and Jill Clayburgh created in Starting Over. Although there are several fine performances, its supporting actors don't form the cohesive core that surrounded Reynolds in the earlier film.
In his directoring debut, David Steinberg avoids all the gimmicky devices a first-timer often employs and adds his own special stand-up-comic touch to many of the funny scenes. However, his successes on the comedy side barely compensate for his failure to turn the romantic spark between Reynolds and the new first lady Beverly D'Angelo into a flame. Even in comedy, the director at times stretches for just a little bit too much, for that extra, meaningless laugh.
Charlie Peters' screenplay is to be admired for its creativity, yet at the same time scrutinized; for the script's inability to avoid the obvious is perhaps the movie's greatest fault--predictability. Also it often seems that Peters' funniest work lies outside the film's mainstream, almost like comic sidebars.
PATERNITY'S story line is an intriguing one--Reynolds plays Buddy Evans, the manager of Madison Square Garden and the most eligible bachelor in all of New York, according to one of his former flingees. Wine and women flow with his every move, his employees click their heels at his snap of a finger and businessmen who try to deal with him are left on the sidelines. He even gets to play basketball with his lawyer's kid on the Garden floor. But something is missing from Buddy the bon vivant's life. At the age of 44, the man who has everything realizes that he needs something more (pangs of the real Reynolds in his middle forties perhaps?).
What Buddy Evans wants is a son. The most enjoyable moments of his daily routine are spent in the park, making faces and sharing candy with the kids. But marriage, or even living with someone, is out of the question for someone of Buddy's elaborate tastes. And so when he learns about the emu (that's a bird) he figures his problems are solved. The emu's claim to fame, as Buddy learns when he tags along on an elementary school nature walk, is that the male hatches and raises the chicks. A surrogate mother of sorts.
So Buddy, his doctor and his lawyer--who also happen to be his best friends--set out to find the ideal surrogate mate. And although the advertisements for this film somewhat distastefully portray Burt Reynolds claiming "He wants you to have his baby," Buddy is not about to settle for anyone. The screening process for the mother-to-be provides some of the movie's most humorous moments, including a disgustingly (not sexually) funny scene in a butcher shop with Toni Kalem and an exquisite sequence of events with the striking Lauren Hutton. From the start, however, it is too obvious that Buddy will wind up with the trumpeting waitress Maggie, played by D'Angelo.
One of Reynolds' good fortunes in the past has been to play opposite women with looks and talent. In Paternity, his fortune increases threefold, as D'Angelo, Hutton, and dazzling Elizabeth Ashley all have what it takes to be leading ladies. The innocently beautiful D'Angelo draws the audience into her corner with ease as the movie runs its course. Hutton, has, of course, played opposite Reynolds before, with the same delightful result. And Elizabeth Ashley, as Evans' feisty southern girlfriend, always puts on a good show.
The movie's other characters are fairly inconsequential. Paul Dooley plays Kurt the lawyer in a nothing performance, while Norman Fell, last seen as the least-appealing character of the even less-appealing TV sitcom Three's Company, remains solvent in the role of the doctor. Mike Kellin, however, in the most minor of minor parts, does provide a few laughs. In one of Peters' shining moments, Kellin plays a Manhattan tour captain who's got an ailment for every part of his body and a hospital in New York for every operation. Steinberg's influence is definitely felt here.
The movie ends as you know it will, unfortunately. And yet you don't feel cheated--the humor, the pretty faces and Reynold's performance make the movie's 103 minutes worthwhile. Even out of the car, the man is still in the driver's seat.
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