Phil Potter (Burt Reynolds) is going through one of the toughest times in his life because he is getting a divorce from Jessica (Candice Bergen), who among other things feels her songwriting career is picking up and there is no place for Phil in her world anymore. As he packs, somewhat haphazardly after a last ditch attempt to get back together with her, he finds she has kept his old love letters taped behind a drawer, but even this poignant moment is not enough to make her see she is making what he feels is a mistake. And so Phil has to start again, make changes and generally become a new person...
Except he's still the same person really, in this, one of the many relationship break-up films of the late seventies and early eighties. Nothing beats Annie Hall for this type of thing, but Starting Over did very well in its day, garnering a few Oscar nominations, although most people prefer to remember Burt for Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run nowadays and forget he was accomplished at drama as well as broad comedy, a talent he gets to show both sides of here. James L. Brooks was the real brains behind this production, however, as the future Simpsons producer adapted the book and his tender but wry style is all over this.
There is a love triangle in Starting Over, and the other woman Phil gets to romance is Marilyn (Jill Clayburgh), who treats us to an unusual "meeting cute" when she thinks Phil is following her on the street one night, and yells at him in a string of expletives and threats before running away. Bewildered Phil continues to the house of his brother Mickey (Charles Durning) only to find that Marilyn is already there: she is his blind date for the evening, so of course they were headed in the same direction. This misunderstanding, believe it or not, provides the basis for a new love affair for them both.
Although if you can believe that Charles Durning is Burt Reynolds' brother, you can believe anything. Before long the nervous Phil, in a role that Paul Giamatti would be ideal for in a remake, is turning his life around, and Reynolds is very likeable as a man who is not as confident as he might appear to be as he gives up his magazine writing job to become a college tutor and the relationship between Phil and Marilyn blossoms; she even moves in with him. And then the unthinkable happens: Jessica reappears, and wants him back, spelling fresh turmoil for our put-upon hero.
Mostly this is neatly handled, with perceptive performances although Brooks' script lets things down a few too many times, as when Phil takes Polaroids of Marilyn in the shower as a joke and she doesn't see the funny side - neither do you, instead thinking that this kind of behaviour might be why he ended up divorced. Fortunately the three stars, backed up with solid support from a winning group of thespians, smooth over rough edges such as that with some degree of effectiveness, although it never seems as natural as it should. There are some clever examples of the comedy of embarrassment, as when Bergen bravely shows off her lack of a good singing voice when Jessica tries to serenade Phil into bed, and you are genuinely unsure of where this will end up, although with Brooks perhaps it's not a huge surprise. Nothing groundbreaking then, but amusing and well-played nonetheless. Music by Marvin Hamlisch.
As the eighties dawned, Pakula had a hit with Holocaust drama Sophie's Choice, but seemed to lose his touch thereafter with middling efforts such as the odd drama Dream Lover, expensive flop Orphans, hit thriller Presumed Innocent, failure Consenting Adults, Julia Roberts vehicle The Pelican Brief and Harrison Ford-Brad Pitt team up The Devil's Own. He was once married to actress Hope Lange and died in a road accident.