John Belushi’s Penultimate Film Takes him up a Mountain to Find Love.
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL APTED/1981
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: DECEMBER 1, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Mismatched hopeless love is the name of the game in director Michael Apted’s 1981 Amblin Entertainment production of Continental Divide. The film is a John Belushi vehicle from that moment in time when the original SNL “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” turned themselves loose into the wilderness of the bigger and the better. For Belushi, that meant hopscotching right passed prime time television to headline movies. He’d already been splitting his attention between big screen roles and the gig that made him famous, Saturday Night Live. But this was the time to truly make a go of it as a leading man. Continental Divide would be among the very final films of John Belushi.
By established Belushi badboy standards, the PG-rated and thoroughly conventional Continental Divide reads as the comedian’s most mainstream move yet. This seems to mark the moment when Belushi was attempting to graduate from the raucousness of Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle into playing grown-ups. Complete with mismatched love (big city boy meets DIY nature girl- a well-cast Blair Brown [Altered States]) and meet cutes, this Spielberg-produced/Lawrence Kasdan-scripted romantic comedy is just about as conventional as anything of the era could possibly be.
That said, this is 1981- when “PG” still left a lot of permissive wiggle room. Once things get hot and heavy between the leads, they stay PG-level hot and heavy: plenty of Belushi and Brown in the barely concealed altogether, s-bombs by the truckload, copious references to porno mags, and of course the leading man is constantly smoking like the chimney of a burning building. All this occurs around the time-tested premise of a hard-bitten star reporter (Belushi) getting curveballed into a human-interest story about a female eagle researcher who lives alone on a mountain (Brown). At first, he doesn’t want to be there, and she has no use for him, as he despises newspapers and their need to “exploit” to doings of others. (His witty defense: “But they only cost twenty cents!”). This dynamic evolves to the level of “naked in bed together” over the course of the film’s first hour. (Side observation: For a woodsy mountain gal, Brown’s character sure takes a lot of showers. By comparison, Belushi takes zero).
Though billed as a romantic comedy, the funniest thing about this experience was seeing that whoever wrote the package summary for Kino Lorber chose to cite Poltergeist behind Steven Spielberg’s name. Getting to the bottom of whether or not Spielberg secretly directed that 1982 horror favorite is one story that no amount of intrepid investigative journalism has been able to sort out. One can only assume that while this film was lensing, Spielberg himself was off shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Or maybe… Poltergeist?)
But, back on point… This new Blu-ray edition from KL Studio Classics maintains a handsome widescreen transfer, playing up the serene quality of what Brown describes as “the world’s oldest church”: nature itself. For British director Apted, hot off the tremendous triumph of Coal Miner’s Daughter, he clearly wasn’t done with shooting in the mountains of America. If scratching that lingering itch for the filmmaker is all that Continental Divide ultimately amounts to, so be it. With this outing, Apted- a demonstrated artisan of drama and documentary- proves fully that comedy just isn’t his bag. Don’t miss the disc’s excellent well-researched commentary track by film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer and film historian/biographer Nat Segaloff.
The film finally settles into a semi-interesting conundrum with the repeated realization that he belongs to the city and she isn’t giving up mountain life any time soon. And yet, they’re in crazy, stupid love. Near the end and with no great resolution in sight, he observes that all she does is kiss him and look at him like he’s going to die. In retrospect, this blurb of dark humor isn’t nearly the throwaway chuckle as intended. But Continental Divide on the whole, in this late burst of Belushi’s career, saw him looking to soar with the eagles. The movie never quite takes off, but that’s okay. Continental Divide nests, both then and now, as a perfectly forgettable puff piece.