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Four Seasons, The
Of the four feature films directed, written by and starring Alan Alda, The Four Seasons (1981) is by far the best. Like The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), which he wrote and starred in but did not direct, it's almost too ambitious, aiming high but admirably adult throughout and, to its credit, succeeds in most respects.
Part of that wave of late-1970s/early-1980s movies that all but vanished during the DVD revolution, The Four Seasons is ripe for rediscovery. It was Alda's biggest commercial and critical success as a feature film writer-director, this despite audiences (including this reviewer) confusing it at the time with the similarly-titled A Change of Seasons (1980), the notorious Bo Derek-Anthony Hopkins hot tub movie. Structure-wise, The Four Seasons is similar to though generally better than Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982). (I suspect Allen saw The Four Seasons and admired it; he began using Alda in his films soon after.) Both are romantic comedies about three couples spending holiday time together, and both use classical music for their scores: Felix Mendelssohn in Midsummer, Vivaldi in The Four Seasons. Indeed, Alda's film sparked renewed popular interest in Vivaldi.
The movie revolves around three upper middle-class couples that vacation together, in each of the four seasons. They are Jack and Kate Burroughs (Alan Alda & Carol Burnett), a lawyer and magazine editor, respectively; Nick and Ann Callan (Len Cariou & Sandy Dennis), an estate planner and housewife/aspiring photographer; and Danny and Claudia Zimmer (Jack Weston & Rita Moreno), he a dentist and she an Italian-American painter.
The film opens at springtime, with the three couples renting a lakeside house in upstate New York. Their marriages and friendships with one another seem idyllic at first. The men make an elaborate Chinese dinner when they arrive. Warm laughs all around. But later during their stay Nick confides to Jack that he's planning on divorcing Ann, his wife of 21 years. Ann, he complains, bores him with her lack of ambition. (A photo exhibit of vegetables took her three years to prepare.) Jack is appalled.
On their next vacation, a summertime sailing cruise in the Caribbean, Jack & Kate and Danny & Claudia must adjust to Ann's absence and the arrival of her replacement, the much younger but sweet-natured Ginny Newley (Bess Armstrong). Nick and Ginny's loud sex onboard and cuddliness the rest of the time annoys the others, but also generates undercurrents of envy and uncertainty, especially for the men who wonder whether they've lost forever the passion once in their own marriages.
With the passing of each season and new vacation spot, tensions among the marrieds and friends slowly boils to the surface: resentment for Jack's constant analyzing of everyone and inability to express his own anger; Kate feeling isolated and neglected by her condescending husband; Danny annoying everyone with his expert knowledge about everything and obsessive accounting of their expenses, etc. Ann returns in the "Autumn" segment, angry that her friends have dropped her like a hot potato, not including her in their lives because of the obvious awkwardness with Nick's new girlfriend.
Though at times Alda's script sounds like a bunch of Alan Aldas talking to one another (especially the scenes between Jack and Nick, but even between Jack and Kate), the talk is so interesting and authentic this is easy to overlook. The conversations are adult and while there's a lot of funny material, Alda never goes for cheap, easy laughs.
Perhaps most successful is that Alda very quickly gets his audience interested in these three couples (plus one), each of whom is distinctive and interesting, creating an atmosphere in which the movie audience shares in their getaways with wine flowing, exotic meals consumed, and full of fun and funny adventures. (Their inexperience with sailing results in several big laughs.) His screenplay captures something rarely expressed in movies: how even during what are supposed to be Good Times, close contact with even the best of friends can generate an enormous stress. In the movie, the characters get on each other's nerves in ways audiences can easily relate to.
Alda's direction of the excellent cast also impresses. Carol Burnett, for instance, thrived in her long-running comedy-variety series, but this is maybe her only substantial movie role where she both fits the material and gives a good performance, one far more relaxed and naturalistic than her other movie work. Kudos to Alda also for writing a character for himself that isn't terribly likeable, even going ape-shit in a disturbing scene near the end. All of the performances are good here.
It's also refreshing in today's movie climate to see a film about middle-aged people grappling with all kinds of identifiable, realistic relationship problems in a mature way, though it's a bit disconcerting to consider that Rita Moreno recently turned 90 and that Alda and Burnett aren't far behind. Is this movie really more than 40 years old?
Video & Audio
Originally released by Universal, Kino's Blu-ray of The Four Seasons is a good encoding of this once-popular, now largely forgotten film, the 1.85:1 presentation and colors intact, while the DTS-HD 2.0 mono audio is acceptable. Optional English subtitles are provided on this Region "A" disc.
Supplements include a trailer and radio spots, along with a new audio commentary track by entertainment journalist Bryan Reesman.
Far better than one might imagine, The Four Seasons is funny and perceptive, the best of star Alan Alda's feature films as writer-director-star. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.