Wendell “Sonny” Lawson (Burt Reynolds) has just received from his physician (Norman Fell) the news that no one ever wants to hear: he’s suffering from a toxic blood disease, and while he probably stands a chance of walking among us for another six months, a more conservative estimate puts it at three. Sonny doesn’t want to die—mostly because it promises to be painful, and he has an intolerance for discomfort—and after confessing his sins and chatting with a boyish-looking priest in “Father Dave” (Robby Benson), Lawson decides to commit suicide.
Telling his family and friends is the difficult part. His girlfriend (Sally Field), his best friend (David Steinberg), his ex-wife (Joanne Woodward) and his parents (Myrna Loy, Pat O’Brien) all seem wrapped up in their own affairs to listen to his plans to take “the big sleep.” His daughter Julie (Kristy McNichol) proves to be the hardest to tell; he ends up lying to her by explaining that he’ll be away for an extended absence…but he will return.
Sonny swallows some of his mother’s sleeping pills…and awakens to find himself in a mental institution due to his suicide attempt. It’s here that he becomes fast friends with Marlon Borunki (Dom DeLuise), a schizophrenic and convicted murderer who’s only too happy to help his new pal Sonny off himself. The problem is…Sonny is starting to have second thoughts.
A film critic—and I want to say it was Roger Ebert, but I can’t find collaboration to back this up—once wrote about a fictional “Burt Reynolds Facial Hair Rule”; namely, Burton Leon Reynolds, Jr.’s only notable feature film efforts were those in which he was clean shaven: Deliverance (1972), The Longest Yard (1974)…and that was pretty much it. Now, in movie criticism—“notable” is in the eye of the beholder: I’ve always liked Burt’s Semi-Tough (1977), and Starting Over (1979) has its admirers and detractors. I think the critic was facetiously suggesting a concept that later became a famous comedy routine by Robert Wuhl (“Burt Reynolds makes so many bad movies, when someone else makes a bad movie Burt gets a royalty!”) that a lot of the actor’s movies blew chunks…and that he sported his mustachioed persona in a good percentage of them (Hooper, Cannonball Runs I and II, Stroker Ace, etc.).
Again, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. I like to joke that the one thing my mother and Alfred Hitchcock had in common (the Hitch part is sworn to by his daughter Patricia) is that they both loved Smokey and the Bandit (1977). (Mom actually prefers the 1980 sequel, to be completely honest—and this is because she is insane.) For years I argued that The End (1978—directed by Reynolds and written by comedy veteran Jerry Belson) was the exception to the “Facial Hair Rule” because it was an attempt on Reynolds’ part to do something a bit different…and yet this isn’t completely accurate, because there is a car chase in the film, and the movie’s stunt coordinator was longtime Burt buddy (and Bandit director) Hal Needham.
Because we were gifted by the U-Verse people with a free preview of some of their HD movie channels (Sony HD, MGM HD, etc.) I decided to revisit The End despite the fact that MGM HD sticks a commercial break (they call it an “intermission”—I call it frustrating) around the 50-55 minute mark of their feature presentations. Sad to report, while I don’t think it’s a terrible movie (its parts are greater than the whole) it didn’t amuse me as much as it once did.
What do I like about The End? It has a falling-down funny performance from DeLuise as Burt’s schizo pal, a guy who’s so eager to please he refuses to take “no” for an answer. (It would be the first—and in my opinion, the best—of Reynolds and DeLuise’s many collaborations.) Classic movie mavens might get a chuckle out of seeing old pros Pat O’Brien and Myrna Loy as Burt’s parents; my only regret is that they don’t have more to do in the movie, and at the risk of being disinherited the two of them strongly reminded me of Los Parentes Yesteryear. Reynolds also cast a number of TDOY faves in small, amusing parts (Fell, Steinberg, Strother Martin)—Carl Reiner plays a death therapist who meets an unfortunate fate and Stacia fave James Best has a funny cameo as a patient who interferes with Burt’s attempt to use a pay phone.
I also think Burt’s soliloquy at the film’s climax is hysterical (“Oh, God—let me live, and I promise to obey every one of the Ten Commandments…I shalt not kill…I shalt not commit adultery…I shalt not…I…I…I’ll learn the Ten Commandments!”). The problem with The End is really Burt the Director; it was only his second turn behind the camera (after 1976’s Gator) and I think someone possessing a more experienced comedic touch would have made some of the scenes punchier (the pacing of the movie is wildly uneven). In revisiting The End, I was also reminded of the fact that before getting Oscars for Norma Rae (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984), Sally Field was in a lot of Burt’s movies simply because she was Burt’s girlfriend. I don’t mean this as a slam (I liked her, I really liked her in Norma Rae); I just think her scenes with Reynolds in The End don’t work and are boring to watch. (I also find the interaction between Burt and ex-wife Joanne is forced—though you can certainly argue it’s meant to be.)
At the time Burt Reynolds took on what became The End, he had a tremendous amount of clout to do whatever he wanted in the movie bidness…and that’s one of the reasons why despite its unevenness the film is a guilty pleasure of mine; it takes a lot of courage to do something out of your wheelhouse, and he was richly rewarded when The End tanked at the box office. (C’est la guerre.) He returned to playing it safe (Hooper was a certified smash, as was Starting Over), but for a moment there Burt tap danced up to the precipice and caught a quick glance at the floor below. Oh, and we can retire the “Facial Hair Rule” because even though I’m not a fan of Boogie Nights (1997), many consider it to be a great film and a fine showcase for Reynolds (personally, I enjoyed his turn as a soiled evangelist in 1996’s blackly comedic Citizen Ruth).