Though it may be antithetical to the concept, friendships are not really meant to last forever. They are really supposed to blossom and grow, only to dwindle and die when their season is over. The specific spells can be lengthy or short – the course of a summer at camp, the years you spend in elementary or high school. But people are meant to develop, to adapt and change with age, environment, career, and ever other ancillary condition that makes life interesting. When it comes to maintaining personal connections, relationships can compliment such individual fluctuations. But not friendship. True, some pals can become paramours, platonic partners in the trip beyond the sophomore clique, or college fraternity. But more times than not, as we mature, discarding certain habits and habitats, we also dispose of our friends. We don't mean to. We hate it when it happens and grieve with guilt as the memories fade. But like that affinity for cartoons or comics that mutates into a love of theater, or a predilection for jazz, age upends us. And it messes with our camaraderie as well.
Just ask the Burroughs, the Callans, and the Zimmers. For years now they have been going on group vacations, sharing the good times – and occasional bad ones – with a bond that they thought would last...well...that WILL last forever. Their kids have grown up and gone to college. They've shared intimate moments and phases of frustration and anger. They've been through it all and think nothing can destroy their affection. But when one of the couples drops the "D" word bombshell, it sends seismic shockwaves throughout the amiable association. Suddenly, trust is destroyed and faith is forgotten. What once seemed solid is now slowly eroding at the edges. And when a new person arrives, foolishly assuming she can instantly fill the shoes of one of their fallen number, emotional battle lines are drawn. It is possible these people and their affection for one another will survive. But it may take longer than The Four Seasons to work itself out, if ever.
Jack Burroughs and his wife Kate have been married for over 20 years. He's a lawyer, while she works at a magazine. Their best friends in the whole world are Nick and Anne Callan and Claudia and Danny Zimmer. Nick is an insurance agent with delusions of grandeur, while Anne is an unsettled housewife who occasionally dabbles in photography. Danny drills teeth for a living – yes, he's a dentist – while Claudia is a designer in the garment district. Together, these six 'stuck together like glue' compadres share seasonal vacations and family trips together. They plan elaborate meals for cozy weekend getaways to available country homes. They sail the Caribbean, and ski a snow draped New England.
During one of their spring flings, Nick drops some devastating news – he and Annie are divorcing. Worse yet, by the summer sail, he's with a new, nubile young "nymph" named Ginny. In the autumn, the fallout from the divorce is even effecting the kids, and by their final trip to a real winter wonderland, attachments are frayed and coming apart at the seams. It appears that the emotional upheaval may be too much for these middle-aged mavericks. They love having their life and their friends planned out like the changing of The Four Seasons, but with Ginny throwing a self-referential wrench into their calm detachment, it may be more than their friendships that end up suffering.
The Four Seasons was meant to symbolize the start of Alan Alda's auteur phase – cinematically speaking. After the wild success of M*A*S*H where the actor amassed his superstar chutzpah as the loveable, iconic Hawkeye Pierce, everyone's favorite wisecracking meatball surgeon was looking to broaden his horizons. Parlaying that performance into several Emmys and stints behind both the sitcom camera and the Smith Corona, Alda imagined that big screen success was just a triple-threat hyphened title away (his previous attempts at Hollywood actor-only heroics having resulted in several misguided, miscast roles).
When The Seduction of Joe Tynan, which he starred in and wrote, became something of a sensation, the cashing-in cogs appeared in place. Alda tapped Tony and/or Oscar Winners Len Cariou, Rita Moreno and Sandy Dennis, dressed them with character class from the jovial Jack Weston, and placed the final frothy layer of lunacy over it all with the inclusion of one of TV's favorite females, Carol Burnett. Adding himself as the lead, and using a year in the life dynamic to discuss friendships in flux, The Four Seasons stormed theaters in 1981. It was the second coming of dramatic comedy witnessed on the widescreen for all to enjoy.
And, interestingly enough, Alda was right. The Four Seasons may have its flaws – nothing is really resolved, and the characters come across as very superficial and base some 25 years after its release – but it is still a smart, laugh out loud farce that has feelings along with its occasional bouts of insight into the mature adult mind. Certainly it doesn't forge any new ground – movies about adultery, divorce, the male mid-life crisis and the challenging of old loyalties once the "other woman" comes into the picture are not novel, at least not to 21st Century, TV movie savvy audiences. But in 1981, when the couple seeking a separation was seen as the fluke, not the norm, Alda's paean to the passing seasons – literal and emotional – packed quite a pseudo-profound punch.
In a moviegoing era dominated by animalistic houses, strippers from 50s nightclubs named after pigs, and an overall juvenile sense of joking, Seasons sat firmly in its middle aged mannerisms. In some cases Alda was channeling another nebbish who fancied himself a social critic – Woody Allen. But unlike his obvious inspiration, who would have awarded his disgruntled mature male a tantalizing teenage girlfriend (ala Muriel Hemingway in Manhattan...and the director himself, later in life), Alda opted for blond quasi-bombshell Bess Armstrong.
He also poured on the moral and socially acceptable rationales for all the extramarital hanky panky (Nick Callan is in love with a psychotic, unfulfilling basket case, who seems to have little going for her except her eccentricities). As a result, he could justify Nick straying, since Bess's Ginny becomes the catalyst for all the pent up personality conflicts these longtime pals are pretending to avoid. Plus, she's just so gosh darn perky in a string bikini.
All facetious nudging aside, The Four Seasons is a marvelous comedy, one lifted above its often archetypal material by the unbridled professionalism of its crackerjack cast. With all the accolades they've raked in, and the years they've served in the performance arena, you know they would be good. But when Burnett thrills you with both her hilarity and her heart, when Weston can turn his hypochondriacal jerk into a sympathetic simp as well, then we suddenly realize that the thespian stars are properly aligned in this film. This does not take anything away from the rest – Cariou has the hard task of being a loveable louse and Dennis is a ditz who seems unable to cope with the creases in her linens, let along her life. Moreno gets merely minor moments, locked in an emotional ethnicity that almost robs her of her character.
Only Alda seems a little out of place, and not in an unpleasant or distracting way. As the idealistic lawyer, the star has given himself the buttinsky blabbermouth to play, the man who has an opinion on everyone and everything and isn't afraid to spell it all out, even for those who don't care. While it might appear that he's playing against type, Alda is actually just channeling his M*A*S*H man, except without all the punchlines. The Four Seasons is a movie that fashions its laughs out of character, not calculated quips. There are a few moments of forced slapstick, as well as a scene or two that seems awkwardly inserted to bolster an underused actor's ego (read: Cariou's scene with his downer of a daughter). Yet Alda shows a spry hand at keeping everything lively and moving. The narrative never drags, and once you're in the kvetching professionals zone, you'll reap nothing by jovial rewards.
Still, this is incredibly dated stuff, the very beginning of the touchy-feely phase of adult cinematic interaction. At the time, The Four Seasons felt like a revelation. These pre-Yuppies yearned for meaning in their life, and no matter the career or family pressures, they could always find time to fulfill wishes and celebrate companionship in more and more outrageous vacation variables. By the time we've hit winter (Alda uses the actual seasons, plus Vivaldi's masterpiece of the same name to frame his film) and the couples completely tear apart a ski lodge, we wonder how they manage to get away without so much as a drunk and disorderly citation – or at least an invitation to sleep in the snow. This is obvious fantasy, an adult playground where a 20-something mistresses can become a Greek chorus, having more insight than long-term friends, and where the messy issues like divorce and deception are wiped away with another scene of old guys falling down.
Yet, like a delicious dish of Chinese food, a slow, serene sail on a massive schooner, the crisp scent of autumn in the air or the unbridled beauty of a landscape covered in snow, The Four Seasons is incredibly addictive. It has a certain rhythm and cadence that calls, like a siren, to your sense of wit and rejoinder. It bathes its bathos in buffoonery, never getting to the heart of the matter but making damn sure we feel better for never wanting it to dig any deeper (after all, we'd miss Jack Weston's stupendous speech about how he fears his jockey shorts). Though it wants to say something about how friendships are like the climatic forces of a typical year, all it really says is that some old guys will grab onto the youngest, prettiest thing they can, and said second lease on life will make their henpecked hubby buddies uneasy.
So if you take it at its face value, get lost in its subtle syncopations and watch as artists in anarchy ply their perfected craft, you will love every loopy, illogical minute of this middle aged precursor to The Breakfast Club. While he's not really remembered any more for his own personal forays into filmmaking – after Seasons came a triptych of terrible films: Sweet Liberty, A New Life and Betsy's Wedding – Alda has been reborn as a crafty character actor, and oddly enough, he has the Woodman to thank for it.
Allen placed the actor in several of his own late career auteur highpoints (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery) and the ex-M*A*S*H maven has parlayed that into a string of successes leading to an Oscar nod for his work in last years The Aviator. But he should also be remembered for this funny, fanciful film. The Four Seasons may not be as memorable as some of the merriment made in the 80s, but it does have a very unique, very 'in your prime' perspective. After all, adults need to laugh too – even if it is at themselves.
Merely having this title on DVD is enough to warrant a few problematic passes for Universal in the transfer department. After all, Alda wasn't Eric Von Stroheim behind the camera. He was a competent, TV sitcom craftsman who loved the medium shot and can't seem to find an artistic composition to save his cinematic soul. And while the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is just fine, it is also filled with the defects and disappointments one comes to expect from lesser, non-remastered third tier titles. Colors are somewhat faded, and there is lots of grain in the seasonal stock footage Alda used (especially in the underwater summer sequences and the winter landscapes). While it could be a lot worse – it could be a straight from VHS violation, or, more disconcertingly, a direct from TV temp job, complete with unnecessary edits -this is still about as bargain basement as the digital presentation can get and still be considered home theater worthy.
Again striving for the bare minimum, Universal presents a flat, lifeless Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soundtrack that's as dull and boring as the vapid visual elements. Vivaldi's magnificent music is rendered rote by the lack of digital dynamics, and the dialogue, while crystal clear and clean, does bear some telltale tinniness. Overall, what we get here is adequate and a little aggravating. How does this major Hollywood studio expect to push DVDs into consumer carts with such low level mastering techniques?
And, of course, to add insult to industry, this is one Mother Hubbard of a title when it comes to added content. When you get there, you too will find the menu bare. Not a trailer or filmography, no Alda commentary or cast/crew interviews (at least, with those who are still alive). Not a single item to sell this entertainment antique to anyone outside the demographic or the 'familiar with it' fan base. Frankly, the film deserves better, if only to give its creator a chance to celebrate his one true filmic triumph.
As much of a testament to its time as to its creator, The Four Seasons is fun, flawed, and fascinating. It combines eons of professional acting skill, a keen ear for clever dialogue, and a rather liberal view of where the DMZ lies in the battle of the sexes to forge a familiar, occasionally formulaic look at friends growing old together. You'll definitely laugh, and pause for personal reflection. But the times when filmmaker Alda pulls out all the stops to shunt the tear ducts into free flowing submission don't always connect. Instead, we feel our own personal pangs of acquaintance dissipation, of buddies we thought would always be there seeming as gone as the memories of the times you spent in inseparable companionship.
Perhaps the reason The Four Seasons isn't better remembered in 2005 is that it itself is a lot like friendship. It was only supposed to exist in the era in which it was conceived, never to live beyond the momentary connection to a particular time and place. If that's the case, the fact that it's still humorous and heartfelt today is an anomaly born out of factors having very little to do with Alan Alda's talent as a filmmaker. The Four Seasons succeeds because it is very much like an old pal – someone, or something, that is comforting and coddling, a realm we like to revisit and reminisce about every now and then.
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