I mourned the passing of Alan J. Pakula in late 1998 in my own small way by re-watching my favourite of his films, the bent romantic comedy Starting Over.
This film is likely to impress us more these days with signs of the creative personality of its writer and co-producer: James L. Brooks, whose star in the '90s ascended (with The Simpsons and As Good As It Gets ), while Pakula's sadly plummeted.
However, perhaps what Brooks gained from his collaboration with Pakula was a sense of how to wring cinematic felicities from essentially sitcom-inspired scripts.
Every moment of Starting Over is quietly virtuosic on the level of its clever reaction shots, its use of off-screen space, and its grasp of small-scale mysteries (where are we going now? how did the last incident turn out exactly?) that drive the film forward with great wit and economy.
Not to mention the superb guiding of a super-droll Burt Reynolds and a hilariously sexy Candice Bergen (in their best screen roles) as well as Jill Clayburgh, perfectly modulating between shyness and exasperation.
But what impresses me most in this film – and here I must credit Brooks equally with the achievement – is its truly modern variation on a classic romantic comedy set-up.
Like in many beloved films of the genre, we have a central character (Reynolds) hesitating between two partners (Clayburgh and Bergen, his ex-wife) as his choice of life-partner. More exaggeratedly than in the 1930s or '40s films, one of these women (Bergen) is obviously the wrong choice: with her narcissism, her self-theatricality (particularly on the sexual plane), her unfailing ability to embarrass everyone, and her rotten singing voice, she is unbearable from scene one.
So what is Burt's problem, and how can we possibly take the dilemma of his choice seriously? Many modern romantic comedies founder right here, but Brooks and Pakula create a unique male character at the centre of this triangle: he is neurotically, even morbidly, indecisive; unable to emotionally invest in anything real, true and solid; and most of all, he is regressive, caught in the past (no matter how awful), unable to "start over".
It is his contradictory, puzzling, irrational vacillation which gives the film its rhythm, its funky sense of contemporary psychology (as alienated as it is ridiculously self-aware and self-performing) – and its tremendous humour.
© Adrian Martin December 1998