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Paternity
(1981)

Director: David Steinberg
Cast:
Burt Reynolds, Beverly D'Angelo, Normal Fell


In this world of ours, there are dozens and dozens and dozens of people (I'm too lazy to do research to find out the exact number of inhabitants.) If you were able to take a careful look at each person on this planet, it is inevitable that you would find reoccurring traits. Almost all of us have ten fingers and ten toes, for example. But if you were to look a little closer, you would find some reoccurring traits that aren't immediately apparent, at least visually. The kind of traits I am talking about that are shared by a whopping number of people are of an instinctual nature, desires that have been placed in the back of our heads either by evolution or by some otherworldly force that is of a much higher nature than us. I'm pretty sure that I have talked about such instincts before, but I'll talk about it again, since there is a chance that you didn't read it before and also for the fact I am also too lazy to check each review of the hundreds I have written before this particular review. One such instinct we have is for enough water in our diets. Water is a key building block of all life on Earth, including us humans. While I am speaking about a requirement of our diets, I would like to add another one to the list - food. We need food with the right kinds and right amounts of vitamins and minerals, and on a regular basis just like water. There is another kind of instinct that we have, at least those who have reached puberty or beyond, and that is the desire for sex. The actual sex act that we choose among many options to indulge in can be one of many forms, but whatever the method chooses, it usually ends in a temporary ease of desire for this instinct.

But in this human society that we have build up to this point after dozens and dozens and dozens of years since man first inhabited this Earth, I say that we have been conditioned enough to have new kinds of instincts, instincts that didn't exist from evolution or a higher power. For example, almost all of us desire to have a lot of money. A related new kind of instinct most of us have in this modern world is the feeling to feel superior to others around us. I am sure the list of new desires could go on for some length, but I'll stop at this point. What I would like to talk about is one kind of instinct that I am not sure can either be classified as something imbedded in the back of mankind dozens and dozens of years ago, or something that first reared its head when mankind first started to form civilizations. And that is the desire to have a child. There is evidence to support both theories. If you think about it, if all those years ago primitive man didn't want to take care of babies after having all that sex, the lack of law and moral code would mean that the babies shortly after birth would be thrown away, and mankind would soon have become extinct. On the other hand, there are a lot of people in this modern world of ours who want to have a baby for reasons that may come across to many people as bizarre. Every so often while flipping through channels on my TV, I come across talk shows where teenage girls that desperately want to have a baby are showcased. And often the reason is that the teenage girls want to have someone in their life that will love them - which can be interpreted as a comment about how modern home life for these girls has crumbled over the past few dozen years or so.

It's more interesting when you come to the men of this modern world of ours that desire to have a child. Personally, I am a man that has absolutely no desire to have a child in his life, so I find it more confusing than a lot of people to understand why a lot of men desire to have children in their Paternitylives. Maybe there is a hereditary instinct, though I do know many men around the world desire children for reasons like having someone who will take care of them once they reach old age. My puzzlement about why many men desire children is a big reason why I was interested in watching the movie Paternity, which deals with that subject, albeit in a comic fashion. But I was also interested in it because it starred Burt Reynolds in a comedy that was different than most of the comedies he is best remembered for, this one being somewhat more serious and less "yahoo" in nature. In this movie, he plays a man named Buddy Evans. Buddy is a 44 year-old man who seems to have it all; he is extremely wealthy, and has the plush job of being the manager of Madison Square Gardens in New York City. He is also a life long bachelor who loves the freedom that being single brings. But lately he has become unhappy. He wants to have a child, specifically a son, to love and to carry on his name after he's gone. But he does not want to get married or have any life-long relationship with a woman. So with the help of his doctor (Fell, Three's Company) and his friend Kurt (Paul Dooley, Breaking Away), Buddy starts interviewing women to find one who will agree to be a surrogate mother in return for a large amount of money. Eventually, Buddy manages to find a willing surrogate, a waitress named Maggie (D'Angelo, National Lampoon's Vacation) who has decided to be the surrogate so she can have the money to later go to Paris and become a musician. Buddy and Maggie agree that their relationship will be purely business, but neither one knows what will happen during the next nine or so months...

I have a feeling most readers of this review of Paternity are most curious about one aspect of the movie, that being of its star Burt Reynolds, so that is where I'll start with my analysis. Though some viewers might think that this role at the time was a big departure for Reynolds, with memories of his yahoo comedies of this period like The Cannonball Run, he had also been in recent years in smarter comedies like The End, Starting Over, and Rough Cut. So it wasn't a big and sudden leap to be in a comedy that aimed to be heartfelt and with serious touches. So how does Reynolds come across in this particular comedy? Well, the results are somewhat mixed. Reynolds comes off best in the first half of the movie. In that part of the movie, Reynolds gives his character heart and likeability, sometimes without saying a word; his facial expressions and physical movements in the opening sequence give the feeling that this is a nice guy who really likes kids. When it starts to dawn on his character that time is running out for having a baby, Reynolds doesn't overplay it. Instead, he shows it's a pressing concern but not an immediate emergency with his words and body language. And we sense his character is well-meaning despite being blind to what is in front of him... at least at first. Things go awry in the second half of the movie. The character of Buddy Evans becomes considerably heartless and selfish in the second half of the movie, such as in one scene where Maggie asks Buddy what he will tell his child about his mother, and Buddy says he won't tell his son anything about her. This change in the scripted character is a severe handicap to both the movie and Reynolds, but it's possible that Reynolds could have made the character in this part of the movie still palatable had he given Buddy a tone that suggested he had momentarily lost his way and was still a decent guy inside. But instead, Reynolds gives Buddy in Paternity's second half the feeling that he is now a heartless bastard of sorts. It really sours the remaining part of the movie, making it a tough watch at times.

Somewhat compensating for the uneven Burt Reynolds performance and character are the performances by the rest of the cast. The supporting players, which also include Lauren Hutton (Once Bitten), Peter Billingsley (A Christmas Story) and Elizabeth Ashley (Windows) along with Fell and Dooley, give credible support to the story, even though they don't get a lot of material that's actually comic in nature. As for Beverly D'Angelo, she does pretty well paired up with her superstar lead. She gives her character a feeling that she has a lot of intelligence and common sense, and that she's seen a lot in her life so that the character of Buddy and his offer don't shock her that much. She also manages to generate some considerable chemistry when she and Reynolds are paired up in a scene, and evolves her performance when the relationship her character has with Buddy starts changing. Which leads to the next objection I had with Paternity, though one that's not D'Angelo's fault. The objection I'm talking about is that the movie is pretty predictable. I don't immediately object to a movie being predictable in its core as long as the various plot turns are at least reasonably executed, and that there are some fresh twists along the way. But Paternity blows it with both of these things. For example, take a look at the supposed evolving relationship between Buddy and Maggie. The two characters only have one scene in the middle of the movie when they seriously talk in a way that reveals themselves to each other. The rest of the time, Buddy is pretty selfish in his behavior towards Maggie, so when both characters suddenly express deep feelings towards each other at the end of the movie, you won't buy it at all. There has been practically nothing showing the slowly building feeling of love between the two characters.

Also, as I indicated above, Paternity doesn't do much in the way of putting in some unexpected twists. What if, say, Buddy had put forward a nationwide search for a surrogate, and the media got wind of it? Or what if adults who were orphaned as children lead a greatly publicized protest about Buddy not considering adoption? Nothing even coming remotely close to those proposed twists of mine happens in the movie. I guess the movie could still have been funny without twists such as those I proposed, but as it is, the movie only has the occasional chuckle. Oddly, the few jokes that do work in the movie, like the singing telegram scene or the sarcastic remarks of Buddy's maid (well played by Juanita Moore of O'Hara's Wife), for the most part have nothing to do with the central premise. Oh, the movie does try to find humor with the premise, but more often than not it doesn't work. In fact, there is often an icky feeling to the arrangement, like the moment in the movie where after the agreement has been made, Buddy and Maggie find it a challenge to actually do the act that will make a baby. (Mercifully, we don't see the actual sex act.) Scenes such as those are not only embarrassing to watch, they are directed with little to no energy by former comedian David Steinberg, making his directorial debut here. While I was glad to watch a comedy that wasn't as in-your-face in its attitude like so many comedies made today more than thirty years later, the movie sure could have used a lot more passion and a feeling of fun. Instead, the word of the day seems to have been "bland". I have the feeling that the creative team of men who conceived Paternity weren't handing out cigars and soliciting congratuations when they saw the finished movie in the studio's screening room for the first time.

(Posted September 22, 2018)

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Breezy, Love At First Sight, Navajo Joe

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