Continental Divide (1981)

I love comedy.  You might not have been able to infer that about me up until this point, and rightfully so given the types of movies I have chosen to post about; but I swear this to be true. I love all types of comedy: slapstick, dry British humor, over-the-top-I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened comedy, and yes, if done right, I can get behind a scatological joke or twelve. In addition to all of this, I also love a good romantic comedy; not that crap that Hollywood insists on shoving down our throats at strategic release points throughout the year. A general rule: if it stars Kate Hudson or Matthew McConaughey or, heaven forbid, both Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, DO NOT ask me to watch it. I may never talk to you again. I like old school, dialogue (the zanier and wittier the better) driven comedies, the kind that Tracy and Hepburn helped make famous. The movies where you actually care about the characters and them getting together and being happy with one another; the films that keep the eye rolling, artificial, overly-manufactured conflicts to a minimum.

I also love John Belushi. This simple fact bares repeating: I LOVE JOHN BELUSHI. Anyone who doesn’t is a comedy communist and needs to be deported to Russia, the home country of “comedian” Yakov Smirnoff. In fact, if someone came to me and said, “Dave, I need you to make a comedian’s version of Mount Rushmore”* it would include Belushi, Bill Murray, George Carlin, and Louis C.K. This is nonnegotiable and arguing with me on this fact is pointless and futile in nature. So why choose John Belushi, especially when his career was short compared to the other three comedians I consider monument worthy? For starters, I have a great appreciation for physical comedy and it is a well-known fact that Belushi was a master of this particular style, his calling card if you will. With that being said, I also like a well-honed impersonation; one were the impersonator physically becomes who he is lampooning. Belushi’s impression of Joe Cocker is one of the best ever created, a statement in which I will stand behind until the end of time. If you don’t believe me, I imbedded the video to prove it.

While I love all of these aspects to Belushi’s comedy, what bothers me is how nobody seems to mention how vulnerable his style of comedy was. Everyone remembers the bull in a china shop version his performances employed but not the sincere, charming, tender nature that underlined even the most quintessential manic performances in his comedic cannon. Like all legendary comedians, there is an undercurrent of sadness to his work, a depth that he was just beginning to mine at the time of his death.

To me Continental Divide best represents his untapped potential as a leading man, romantic or otherwise. Belushi plays Ernie Souchak, a Chicago reporter whose reputation is that of one who exposes the interrelated nature of crime and politics—a trait that ultimately gets him in water hot enough that his editor has to send him far away from the city as it seems some of the wrong people took offense to his reporting. His new assignment is to interview an ornithologist (Blair Brown) who is as renowned for her reclusive nature as her advancements in her field. From this point on, the movie slows down, becomes comfortable in its own skin, and the viewer is treated to a wonderful love-hate romance, one that teaches our leads what their lives have been missing due to engulfing themselves in their careers.

Belushi makes the most of his opportunity here, largely cast against type in this fish out of water story; he gives an extraordinarily layered performance and his chemistry with Brown is perfect. Both actors are able to play off each other wonderfully and execute Lawrence Kasdan’s script in a way that highlights all its strengths while simultaneously minimizing its weaknesses. Earlier in the post I mentioned Tracy and Hepburn, and the comparison film critics made at the time of Continental Divide’s release to the legendary duos films of yesteryear is apt. The love-hate relationship that was on prominent display in those films is well rendered here, and Belushi encompasses all the gruffness in his role that helped make Spencer Tracy so fun to watch. The director, Michael Apted, deserves a lion’s share of the credit here for having the vision to cast both leads against type—no Channing Tatum or Katherine Heigl types here—and the audience benefits as they get a sense of realism and relatability from the relationship. As played by Belushi and Brown, the characters avoid the cookie-cutter pitfalls that can ruin this type of film; they are colorful and eccentric actors who never play the situation for ridiculous laughs.  It amazes me that Brown never got a chance to shine in future efforts like she does here. The actress exudes warmth in the role—truly a great, underappreciated performance.

Sadly, Belushi would be gone a year later, a victim of an overdose during a time in Hollywood when drugs were consumed in historical amounts. During his all too brief a time in the spot light, Belushi was able to leave a lasting comedy legacy, but fans will always have to wonder “what if?” What if he had a chance to fully capitalize on his potential; he was a comedian and actor that proved willing to stretch and seemed to be willing to build a career without boundaries. His pure and somewhat raw charisma would surely have helped him achieve this goal. At least his fans will always haveContinental Divide, a film that managed to catch a glimpse of a star that had more to offer the world but would exit it well before his time.

-David

*I’m not sure why this would happen or where it would be located. Maybe Stone Mountain, Georgia. They don’t have any important monuments carved into a side of a mountain there. Wait, they do? Shit.

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