Treated and Released: Continental Divide (Sept. 18, 1981)
September is a hard month to pin down when describing moviegoing habits. We all know that the summer is for big blockbuster adventure films, and typically you should release your holiday family comedies and acclaimed book adaptations sometime in between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This stuff isn’t brain surgery. But September is one of the “dump months” for some studios. It’s that special time of year where no one is really going to the movies much, so you should probably use it to get rid of big stinkers or anything with a tiny budget that can break even with a measly $20 million.
In short, September is the time for dud comedies, dull dramas, and more recently the cheapo “found footage” or “reality TV” films.
Now, let’s go back in time to the simple days of 1981. John Belushi is a huge star thanks to his party animal image from “Saturday Night Live,” Animal House, and The Blues Brothers. Meanwhile, Lawrence Kasdan is the wunderkind screenwriter who has made a name for himself on movies that pay homage to long-gone genres. When the two were combined, magic unfortunately did not occur.
Continental Divide, while not a gem, is not a bad movie at all. It’s just the wrong movie in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s the John McClane of underwhelming romantic comedies. The big marketing push for this flick was that Belushi and co-star Blair Brown were going to be the next Audrey Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Not really in terms of iconography or performance, but in terms of chemistry and “opposites attract” appeal.
Wow. What a beautiful, earnest gamble on the part of Universal Studios and producer Steven Spielberg. Let’s take the guy who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back and let him write a dignified, dialogue-heavy romance where our boyish male hero is the fat guy on cocaine who normally screams at everyone and falls down a lot. No one would have ever tried this in the 1990s with Chris Farley, or the “aughts” with Jack Black, or now with someone like TJ Miller. And those last two guys don’t even have the insane party-tornado reputation.
Now, the reason no one would ever try that again is because Continental Divide was a big apathetic shrug for critics and did incredibly modest business. It opened at No. 1 against schlocky tell-all Mommie Dearest and the still-potent draw of Kasdan’s own directorial debut Body Heat. But this was September; all the romance needed to open at No. 1 was $3 million.
All formulaic marketing strategy aside, what type of moviegoers choose a movie like Continental Divide in mid-September? Sure, it’s a nice quiet movie to detox off of a summer that included Indiana Jones, two different werewolves, James Bond, Superman, and some sort of Cannonball Run. But it’s more romance than comedy. This is a movie that belonged somewhere between February and April, when love is in the air and when Bill Murray and Dudley Moore respectively hadn’t just made two uproarious comedies that set the course for the rest of the decade. If this had been a big, bombastic Belushi comedy it might have done to September what Deadpool did to February, but there was no chance because of the material.
The 1980s were a navel-gazing set of years, and that’s reflected in the cinema of the time. It seemed like every movie was, in part, a nostalgia grab for the Baby Boomers who were flush with cash and drugs. This might sound familiar to anyone in 2016 who is weary of having to experience 1997 again, complete with the upcoming Power Rangers reboot and Jeff Goldblum leading a sci-fi action blockbuster. Anyway, Continental Divide was yet another throwback to a genre that was a product of its time. While far from being considered a screwball comedy, there are elements of the bygone subgenre. There is a type of class war between Belushi’s Chicago reporter and Brown’s reclusive Rocky Mountain eagle expert. The lush landscapes and Belushi’s fleeing the city to avoid retribution from crooked politicos has such an air of escapism. And the “battle of the sexes” taking place in the wilderness that challenges his masculinity with her expertise is something out of the ‘30s and ‘40s, certainly.
Kasdan’s ability to bring forgotten genres bubbling back to the cultural conversation of film was due for a miss, I suppose, and this was always going to be the prime candidate. After all, the fantasy/space opera and the archeologist swashbuckler were ideas that were simultaneously old fashioned and fresh to the audience. Meanwhile, Continental Divide arrived with a sleepy premise and misguided casting to deliver a final product that seemed overly safe and old pat to audiences at the time. As a result, the film couldn’t give a jolt to the audience or the release slate.
Not many folks remember this movie. It did Kasdan no favors and was easily overshadowed by the rest of his banner year. Brown caught a Golden Globe nod for her performance but never headlined a movie again. And the movie served as the figurative nail in Belushi’s literal coffin; he was dead six months later. Now, Continental Divide sits next to Belushi’s other 1981 film Neighbors as a duology of debatably fruitless experimentation in the last year of his life.
Ultimately, the release date was not the direct cause of this so much as a microcosm of all the mitigating factors; I would argue that releasing Continental Divide in September is far less damaging than releasing the movie in 1981 at all. Roll this movie back to 1979, though, and who knows?