Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Continental Divide (1981)

Continental Divide Marquee
Continental Divde
Starring
John Belushi
Blair Brown
Allen Garfield
Carlin Glynn

Directed by
Michael Apted

Written by
Lawrence Kasdan

Ernie Souchak (John Belushi) is a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times and a damn good one at that. You remember what reporters were don’t you? Those were the men and women who worked for newspapers that would actually investigate some of the wrong doing, crime, and corruption  going on in the world, thus helping in their own Un-Superman-like way to stand up for truth, justice, and whatever else would sell the most newspapers. And Souchak does seem to sell a lot of newspapers because the more he writes, the happier his boss, Howard McDermott (Allen Garfield) seems to be. In fact, when Ernie is writing, Howard smiles…a lot. 
 
On the other hand, Howard’s wife Sylvia (Carlin Glynnn) wants nothing more than to fix Souchak up with a nice gal so that he can  settle down and they can poke out a couple of Little Souchak’s.  But marriage is the furthest thing from Souchak’s mind. He’s enjoying his life way too much just as it is especially  he’s investigating and writing about his main adversary, Alderman Yablonowitz (Val Avery), who is as crooked and as corrupt as they come.

Aided by a City Hall Clerk, Souchak comes up with one scoop after another until Yablonowitz decides to teach him a lesson by having a couple of his thugs posing as policemen beat the living crap out of Souchak as a warning to back off.

So in order to protect Souchak, not to mention protecting his newspaper’s main asset to circulation, Howard tries to Continental Divide 0001convince Souchak to leave town for a couple of weeks until things cool down.  Otherwise, Souchak might end up a wee bit dead.  Sylvia suggests that he interview famed and reclusive ornithologist Nell Porter (Blair Brown).

“Grow up, Sylvia,” Ernie whines. “What do I know about the intercontinental crack? I bet they’ve got hills up there where she comes from”

“Sort of,” Sylvia answers. “We call them the Rockies.”

Eventually Ernie succumbs to friendly persuasion and heads for the Rocky Mountains over prepared and underequipped for the challenges ahead.  Yes, I know it seems like a contradiction, but believe me, when you watch the movie you’ll understand.

There’s a climb up the mountains with a crotchety old guide who drinks Ernie’s liquor. There’s a confrontation with a Bear who takes Ernie’s cigarettes. During Ernie’s climb we also get  our first glimpse of the “possum.” Why is this “possum” so important?  Do you expect me to tell you everything?   But most importantly, there’s Nell herself.

Continental Divide 0002Although Continental Divide is undoubtedly classified as a romantic comedy, there is much more than that going on here. Early on, we get some quick drama and intrigue as Souchak investigates Yablonowitz. We then get the fish out of water story as Ernie tries adjusting to life in the Rockies after having his feet firmly planted in the terra firma of Chicago for most of his life. And then we have the romantic portion of the film which asks us the age old question of whether opposites really do attract?

Except that when you stop to think about it, Nell and Ernie aren’t really that different. The fact that they are perceived as opposites has more to do with the environments they live in than what their personality makeup is. They are both dedicated to their jobs, and they each know the best way to survive in those elements.
 
Nell of course, has total disdain for reporters. Ernie thinks of Nell as being nothing more than an “Eagle Freak.” We watch as Ernie learns to respect Nell for her work and through a series of accidents learns to not only to understand her, but to see the world through her eyes. Nell for her part begins to see Ernie not just as a reporter but someone who is just as  passionate about his work as she is about her own, and that he too is someone who can make a difference in people’s lives.

But what makes this movie special is that it doesn’t hammer us over the head with the obvious. It lets the attraction grow steady and subtly because there is a bigger question at stake here than the old opposites attract routine. And it is a question that looms large all the way up to the closing minutes of the film.

Most films of this type generally end with the two stars falling into each other’s arms and declaring their never ending love for each other.   They then proceed to Cinderella’s castle to live happily ever after. Without giving too much away, Continental Divide never falls for that easy ploy because we know, just as Ernie and Nell know, how they feel about each other long before the final denouement comes. But then what? They both survive best in their own environments, doing the kind of work that brings them fulfillment. Can one give that up for love, and hope that such feelings will be enough to fill in the empty void that would be left?

Continental Divide 6Continental Divide owes a lot of its success to a wonderful script by Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist) and the even handed direction of Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Midst). They resist what must have been a lot of temptation to let Belushi go on a wild tangent after his successes on Saturday Night Live, Animal House, and The Blues Brothers. In fact, I can honestly say you won’t fall out of your seat in hysterics, but you will chuckle a few times.  The humor comes from the deftly written script, not from a series of meaningless pratfalls.  Yes, there are those as well, but they are more a consequences of what Ernie’s character is than simply inserted for a few cheap laughs.

Yet, without the two leads making the whole thing seem plausible, Continental Divide could easily have been a gigantic misstep. The idea of seeing John Belushi in a Romantic Comedy at this stage of his career must have had quite a few movie goers scratching their head in puzzlement. I’m sure many of them even went into the theater expecting more of the same old Belushi they had become accustomed to. I had my own doubts at the time as to whether or not he could pull it off, but he quickly makes us forget he wears a black suit and sunglasses on the side or can break whisky bottles on his forehead while smashing guitars..  . In fact it is with a great deal of sadness that we will never know the entire range of versatility that Belushi was capable of. For instance, in the dramatic sequences that bookend the film, John showed he may have been capable of carrying a straight dramatic role as well.

Continental Divide 7As for Blair Brown, after seeing this film numerous times I can’t imagine anybody else who could have pulled off the role of Nell Porter other than perhaps Katharine Hepburn playing opposite Spencer Tracy. It’s not just that she actually makes us believe she is an ornithologist; it’s that she plays the role in such a way that the romantic chemistry between her and Belushi actually works as they grow from sparring partners to partners who share a mutual admiration and appreciation of one another. As Sylvia says later in the film, Nell is one helluva mountain goat.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is the greatest romantic comedy to come down the pike in the last thirty years or so. But it is certainly far more entertaining on all levels than most of the formulaic romantic comedy films being churned out these days. And if nothing else, maybe you’re into travelogues and if the romance doesn’t grab you also get some great shots of eagles and landscapes photographed beautifully by Cinematographer John Baily. For that reason alone I suggest you watch the film on one of the HD movie channels if possible or better yet just buy or rent the DVD. (Forget about watching it on commercial television. The pan and scan is often horrid, and the dialogue heavily censored: No, he did not hit that cougar in the butt and it isn’t so quiet you can hear a mouse fart as you’ll find out.)

And then there’s that ending. Whether you agree with it or not, after thinking about it for a while, you have no choice to come to the conclusion that there was really no other way for this to conclude unless you wanted a truly sour finale which would have been even worse.

Continental Divide 10I find the film enjoyable on just about every level, whether it’s the dramatic turns, the love story, the fish out of water story, or how exceptionally well all of these combinations are played out. And when a film combines all of these elements and does it in such fine fashion, I have no choice but to give it my grade, which would be an eagle soaring A-. And damn, I still miss John.

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