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My Year Of Flops: Rejected Reject #2 Continental Divide

In show business success forgives just about anything while failure is often unforgivable. If a guy writes enough hit songs, he can get away with everything short of videotaping himself urinating on underage girls in front of a giant Space Jam-themed mural and remain one of the biggest, most beloved pop stars in the world. Oh wait.

But if the hits dry up, it's safe to assume that the far-fetched, wholly theoretical Pied Piper of R&B; I totally made up using my Texas-sized imagination would be kicked off his label for being an unforgivable degenerate. Similarly, when John Belushi was wowing the young people with his antics, shenanigans and tomfoolery on Saturday Night Live, his drug use was tolerated, if not outright celebrated, as part of his hard-partying, anti-authoritarian, slobbish charm. It took an enormous amount of energy to star in a show like Saturday Night Live. It didn't seem to matter to Belushi's fans if that energy was natural or came in a baggie full of white powder.

Besides, stoners were Belushi's people. His drug use endeared him to the druggies in the audience. He was one of them, a guy who liked to have a good time, a legendary partier. His friends considered him indestructible, nicknaming him The Albanian Oak. Nobody wanted to think of him as a hopeless drug addict who'd die before his thirty-fifth birthday, even the people closest to him, even the people who should have known better. But they had lives and careers and drug problems of their own to worry about.

Then Belushi went from red-hot to ice-cold in record time. The iconic success of Saturday Night Live and Animal House gave way to the massive failure of 1941. Blues Brothers is now considered a comedy classic. In my hometown of Chicago, not seeing it at least twice is a criminal offense. But it went wildly over-budget and Belushi's on-set temper tantrums and drug abuse earned him a reputation that hovered somewhere between bad and toxic.

Belushi was out of control. Even worse, he was no longer a sure-fire moneymaker. 1981's Continental Divide, this week's entry in My Year Of Flops: Rejected Rejects, had the potential to save both Belushi's life and his career. It was filmed largely on location in Montana and Washington, far from the pushers, parasites and hangers-on that plagued Chicago and Los Angeles. Throughout the filming, Belushi remained clean and sober. This was a new Belushi, clear-eyed and professional.

Continental Divide offered a weird pop-culture detox for Belushi's fans as well. With Continental Divide the narrative was no longer fat-man-fall-down-make-funny but rather fat-man-remain-vertical-maintain-dignity. Continental Divide was largely devoid of pratfalls and low comedy, farts and food fights. Belushi wasn't just tackling a challenging role; he was a goddamned romantic lead. Bluto was finally going to get the girl.

Continental Divide wasn't just any romantic comedy; it was a perversely austere romance that stranded Belushi and romantic lead Blair Brown in a cabin high in the mountains for a solid hour with no other company or distractions save for a mountain man with an unusual past and a hard-drinking comic relief guide. Belushi wasn't cautiously dipping a toe in an unfamiliar genre; he was diving headfirst into uncharted territory.

Would Belushi's fans accept him in this radically new context? No, no they would not. The ramifications of the film's resounding failure, coupled with the massive failure of the similarly daring Neighbors just four months later, would have a devastating impact on Belushi personally and professionally.

Continental Divide casts Belushi as a superstar Chicago columnist based on Mike Royko. Like Royko, Belushi specializes in exposing civic corruption, especially where aldermen are concerned. Of course, in Chicago, shady doings among local politicians is a news flash on par with "Sun Rises in Morning, Sets In Evening" but Belushi's fearless truth-teller becomes a huge local celebrity. Ah, the eighties. They were truly a simpler time. A time when people actually paid attention to newspapers and city politics.

As a newspapery writer person I have a soft spot for films that make journalists out to be heroes revered by their community instead of ink-stained wretches cursed to die penniless and anonymous. It's a beautiful dream, man, a beautiful dream. Anywho, when Belushi's latest crusade against aldermanic chicanery threatens to explode into violence, Belushi's editor sends him into the mountains to hide out and cover an even more explosive story: apparently there's some headstrong broad (Blair Brown) who's all about protecting eagles or something.

In the grand tradition of romantic comedies, Belushi and Brown initially despise each other. Brown finds Belushi coarse, brutish and exploitative. Belushi in turn finds Brown snooty, cold and asexual. Then hatred turns to mutual respect and then into something approaching love.

But how can will this mismatched twosome be able to reconcile their divergent lifestyles? Belushi loves a blues tune, the Jesse White Tumblers and Wrigley Field in June. A polish sausage makes him lose control. But Brown has only seen the heights a tree-hugger can see from mountain heights. What a wild duet!

Accordingly, Belushi eventually heads back to Chicago and comes down with a major case of lovesickness. He's lost his zeal for exposing corruption among city officials. He mopes about in a depressed stupor until he learns that Brown is delivering a speech in Chicago. Their romance is rekindled but their overriding passions threaten to tear them apart once again.

Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan made his name giving his favorite antiquated genres a newfangled contemporary spin in his wildly successful screenplays for Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Empire Strikes Back, Silverado and Body Heat. With Continental Divide–which was Executive-Produced by Raiders of The Lost Ark director Steven Spielberg, Kasdan set out to write a modern Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn film, a wry battle of the sexes filled with witty banter and sexual tension.

Alas, Tracy and Hepburn had an alchemy that's impossible to reproduce. In Contintental Divide, opposites just don't attract: the film is done in by poky pacing and a fatal lack of chemistry between its leads. According to Wired, Belushi was an unrepentant sexist. With the exception of Gilda Radner, he just didn't think women were funny so it's not surprising that sparks failed to fly when he played opposite a strong-willed feminist who didn't need a man to complete her. Or at all.

I really wished I'd liked Continental Divide more, since it has a lot going for it. It respects its audience and takes chances. Belushi delivers a wonderful performance, tender and vulnerable and lovelorn. It taps into the boyish sweetness that made Belushi so lovable. Belushi actually did lots of great acting on Saturday Night Live. Over the course of a single episode he might play a blue-collar husband and Henry Kissinger and himself and a half dozen other challenging roles.

But once Belushi became typecast as the fat crazy guy, his options dwindled. At the end of his life Belushi was reduced to saying yes to starring in National Lampoon's Joy Of Sex, a notoriously lousy script that had floated around Hollywood for ages without making it past the finishing line. At one point Belushi's character even wears a diaper. It was a long way from trying to establish Belushi as the new Spencer Tracy. Belushi's handlers, having been burned by Continental Divide and Neighbors, figured that Belushi+Sex+National Lampoon=boffo-box-office no matter how insultingly bad the material. They'd taken the high road and bombed. Now they were reduced to pandering to the kids who wanted Belushi to play a grotesque caricature of himself.

Belushi tried to grow as an actor and as a man. His fans just weren't having it. Continental Divide should have marked Belushi's tentative, encouraging first step towards quirkier, more substantive roles and films. Instead it, and Neighbors–which I very much intend to write about for this column–were more of a dead end.

What I Would Give This Film If It Were a My Year of Flops Entry, Which It So Totally Is Not: I dunno, it's too good to be a Failure, but it's not quite a Secret Success. I'd probably make up some sort of bullshit hybrid rating like Secret Double Half Failurcess to The 9th Degree