Movie Review: Continental Divide (1981)
“When they met they heard bells. And that was just round one.”
Continental Divide (1981)
Director: Michael Apted
Cast: John Belushi, Blair Brown, Allen Garfield
Synopsis: A hard-nosed Chicago journalist has an unlikely love affair with an eagle researcher.
We tend to think of John Belushi as this mercurial character churning out one comedy classic after another, but the truth is he made only eight movies before his career and life were terminated by a drugs overdose in 1982. In Animal House he twitched his eyebrows and impersonated a zit as the near-feral cave-student, Bluto, and he was on a musical mission from God with his brother Elwood in the ageless Blues Brothers. And then there was… erm… well, there was cigar-chomping Wild Bill Kelso in Steven Spielberg’s stupendous misfire 1941, which cemented his reputation as a wild man of the movies but can hardly be described as a classic. So, of the eight films he made (one of which was an English-language voiceover for a French sex-spoof on Tarzan), only two were of any real worth or significance. The rest were, well, fairly ordinary to be honest. Continental Divide, which was released in September 1981, is typical of the rest of his output: it’s pleasant enough, and it’s mildly entertaining, but there’s little of Belushi as we remember him in it.
A Continental Divide (or intercontinental crack, as Belushi’s character calls it) is a mountainous region which separates the flow of water so that the drainage basin on one side of the divide flows into one ocean, and the basin on the other side flows into another. It’s also a metaphor for the gulf separating the contrasting personalities of newsman Ernie Souchak (Belushi) and eagle researcher Nell Porter (Blair Brown). The romance between Souchak and Porter is one of polar opposites whose divergent lifestyles would ordinarily dictate that they never meet. Souchak (who’s loosely based on journalist Mike Royko) is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times whose editor (Allen Garfield – The Candidate, The Conversation) assigns him to write a piece on Porter in the wilds of the Colorado mountains after his relentless campaign to expose a corrupt local politician earns him a beating from the mob.
Porter has spent four years far from human contact, so you might think she’d be glad of some company after seeing only the occasional hiker and fortnightly visits from a local guide, but Souchak – who really doesn’t want to be there, anyway – receives a chilly welcome from the unexpectedly attractive researcher, who wasn’t forewarned of his arrival. Eventually, she realises that she’s going to have to put him up until the guide’s next visit, but Souchak finds it tough adjusting to life away from the city (“It’s so quiet up here, you could hear a mouse get a hard-on,” he remarks). Inevitably, Porter’s attitude towards her uninvited guest softens during the course of his enforced stay, and by the time the two weeks is up they’re sharing cosy nights together in front of the log fire. But how can their romance survive when she’s committed to her studies, and he’s determined to nail that crooked politician back in Chicago?
The intention of writer Lawrence Kasdan was for Continental Divide to capture the mood of the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn movies of the 1940s and ‘50s (he would also write and direct another retro movie, the vastly superior neo-Noir Body Heat, in the same year), which makes the casting of John Belushi something of a curious choice. In fact, the previously rotund actor lost so much weight during the filming of Continental Divide that he began to seriously entertain aspirations of becoming a romantic leading man. While that might have been too much of a leap for audiences to accept, he does ok as Souchak, even if the spectre of the wild man sits on his shoulder in every scene, prompting us to half-expect some outrageous behaviour at any moment. Unfortunately, much of the movie consists of just Belushi and Blair on-screen together, which exposes the complete absence of any sexual chemistry between them. The opposing natures of their characters might hark back to Hepburn and Tracy, but those two still seemed like they were made for each other in spite of their differences. While we might be able to believe that Porter and Souchak could share a few nights under the duvet as a result of their situation, the idea that such a relationship would survive the challenges presented by Continental Divide’s unsatisfying climax is remote at best. Still, it’s interesting to see Belushi trying something different, and the scenery is often stunning. But, sadly, Continental Divide is neither romantic nor funny enough to fully deserve its label as a romantic comedy.
(Reviewed 2nd April 2016)
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