Burt Reynolds, Kris Krisofferson and Jill Clayburgh Play Ball in the 1970s.
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL RITCHIE/1977
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JANUARY 21, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Semi-Tough is a tough one to tackle. A football movie but not at all a football movie; a Burt Reynolds movie but not at all a Burt Reynolds movie; a buddy movie but not at all a buddy movie. What it is, in all its meandering and happenstancial mixing of affections, is something thoroughly, deeply, unrevokably 1970s.
Yes, there was more to the 1970s than gaudy fashion and Burt Reynolds- Semi-Tough does not stop there. Nor does it delve into lowest-common-denominator reductive bits like disco, Farrah Fawcett posters and Bruce Lee. Rather, director Michael Ritchie seems interested in tapping a very momentary zeitgeist, and, for whatever reason, reflecting it on screen. To watch Semi-Tough is to engage with some next-level 1970s cultural anthropology. (Justin Mory cites the film among the runners-up on his Top Ten Movies of 1977 list).
Semi-Tough certainly isn’t alone in the Ritchie directorial canon as something gruffly grounded and coarsely cognizant. Having proven himself with 1969’s acclaimed Downhill Racer, Ritchie found one of his greatest successes with The Bad News Bears in 1976. Around those films in that era, he also gave us the abrasive forgotten Smile, the political favorite The Candidate, and the apparently quite imperfect An Almost Perfect Affair.
Smile and Bears are of particular relevance here, as flagrantly unrefined terseness became a formidable and ubiquitous selling point. In these films, tossed-off crudities are as frequent as the elbow pads on the men’s sport coats. Semi-Tough, with its R-rating, gets to take it all even further, granting Jill Clayburgh’s character a casual affinity for the f-word and has everyone indulging in all manner of tossed-off bodily humor. (Reynolds, holed up in bathroom trying to write during a large gathering, fends off knockers with sharp retorts like “Just shit and push it under the door!” A great line, though one that today wouldn’t turn any heads. But back then, in a studio comedy with the biggest star of the decade yelling it- it must’ve registered.
Semi-Tough is roughhewn yet brazenly oxidized. The movie is wide open to but not enamored with all the different worlds it’s depicting. For example, Reynolds and Kristofferson are professional football players on a team that makes it to the Super Bowl, yet the movie doesn’t even bother to grant that team (or any other) a name or logo. Ritchie is far more interested in the athletes and owners off-field dealings, wheelings, and relations. When the big game finally rolls around (Super Bowls were plenty more modest back then), the film sticks with it for a while before losing interest and shifting to more important things.
Early in the film, Reynolds entertains accepting a tell-all book deal, though he’s no writer. He insults the publishing representative by regaling him with increasingly outlandish horsecrap stories that could go into the book, resulting in a lecture from the recipient. But then, he actually seems into the idea of writing such a book and begins to try to do just that. (Hence, the bathroom moment).
The writing thing becomes increasingly back-burnered as Reynolds’ charmed but very modest Jules and Jim-esque living arrangement is challenged. All three leads- Reynolds, Kristofferson and Clayburgh (a multi-time divorcee and free-spirited daughter of their team’s owner)- share an apartment (though purely platonically). Then one day, Kristofferson and Clayburgh decide that they’re going to tie the knot. Reynolds, now a wordsmith, plays the heartbreak he feels internally. Doggonit, he liked her… now, he’s not so tough. Just semi-tough.
The wedding comes at the climax of the film. It’s a church sequence that’s downright gleeful in its scattershot sacrilege. In the mix is a shady giver of popular self-help seminars, played with authoritative bluster by Bert Convy. The seminar is a not-brief portion of the middle of the film which finds a large group of willing attendees seated in a hotel ballroom. The host (Convy) begins with a verbal barrage of calling everyone “assholes” over and over, and we learn that the people are not even allowed to leave their seats for the restroom. They are in pursuit of an unquantifiable “IT”- either they have IT, or they don’t. Either they attain IT… or they don’t.
It’s all very closely based upon a 1970s phenomenon called “Erhard Seminars Training” (or “est” for short; the lack of punctuation and lowercase letters being intentional), named after its founder and host, Werner Erhard. He too reportedly launched into his initial sessions shouting that everyone in the room were assholes. In the film, the chairs are eventually pushed away, and everyone is writhing on the floor in dramatic fits of subconscious grappling. Vomit bags are handed out.
In the film, Clayburgh’s character subscribes to and attends these things. Her fiancé knows that it’s not for him, but she is later surprised to look over and see Reynolds taking part in this, fully in the throes of the leather sport-coated master. The sequence is key to Semi-Tough, and a rare tell of the lengths that Reynolds was willing to go as an actor- but very rarely did. Of course, the character holds his cards close- was he just faking it for her affection? In any case, she’s not only onto him at every level, but is as taken as a woman like her could be for such an action.
The film seems to view itself as a lit match in a stinky bathroom. Audiences of the time, perhaps more attuned to harsh introspection than hindsight often gives it credit for, went for it. Box office-wise, the unblinkingly wry Semi-Tough found success- though not at all to the degree that 1977’s other big Burt Reynolds vehicle, Smokey and the Bandit did. Bob-and-weave cat-and-mouse shenanigans will always be a more effective sell than this kind of aloof Altman-esque meandering.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ recent Blu-ray edition maintains the film’s 1970s patina and feel brilliantly- a key aspect to the experience of this oh-so-“me decade” film. Anything less than this might well be a disservice to Semi-Tough. There is no commentary track, which is a shame, as this is one film that really could use the feature-length contextualization that KL’s stable of film historians are apt to provide. We do, however, get a raft of trailers for every release the label ever put out that could link back to this movie.
Ritchie seems far less interested in where to put the camera or modeling a cinematic atmosphere than cultivating a particularly sharp, sustained tone. This director does what he does, and in such, it’s hard to criticize him too much in this, his heyday. But undeniably, it’s the confident cast and their consistent chemistry that carry Semi-Tough. And their great talent aside, it can’t be denied that Reynolds, Kristofferson and Clayburgh all simply owned the era when it came to screen presence. Whether they’re carrying Semi-Tough to the end zone, the alter, or the bathroom… that simply depends on which “it” you walk away with.
The images used in this review are intended for reference only and do not reflect the image quality of this Blu-ray. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing this Blu-ray review copy.