People tend to be surprised when a sleepy-looking, sleepily titled, and just plain sleepy little movie aimed at grown-ups makes a lot of money, like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Hell, people tend to be surprised when any film pitched to the AARP set does blockbuster numbers, whether it’s It’s Complicated grossing more than $200 million internationally despite dealing extensively with the gross subject of old people having sex, or Hope Springs grossing more than $100 million despite dealing with the even grosser subject of old people trying to fix their sexual problems.
Movies, and pop culture as a whole, are supposed to be a young person’s game. (And, regrettably, even at this late date, they’re still generally considered a young man’s game.) Film audiences may skew older than, say, pop-music fans, but there’s still a widespread belief that to do blockbuster numbers, the industry has to appeal to the squeaky-voiced teens and twentysomethings who angrily demand an endless succession of superhero epics, horror films, and remakes of movies they were too young to see the first time around. Young people are expected to be furiously invested in pop culture, to see movies and go to concerts and have strong opinions that they share on social media. But after a certain age, adults are no longer expected to be active participants in the culture. They’re expected to retreat into the comforting cocoon of the familiar, to re-watch the movies of their youth and get out of the way of the young people Hollywood actually cares about.
And yet the lively box-office of movies pitched to grown-ups shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Senior citizens may not see movies with the same passion or consistency as teenagers, but it’s not as if they’re all too busy worrying about their grandchildren’s Facebook posts, or trying to remember whether they’ve taken their medication, to see movies that reflect their own concerns and desires. I tend not to be surprised by the gaudy grosses of such movies, but even I was surprised to discover that Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons was the ninth top-grossing film of 1981, just behind For Your Eyes Only. The latter features dazzling underwater photography, and the thrilling continuing adventures of James Bond. The Four Seasons features a scene where middle-aged men prepare stir-fry. Yet they were neck-and neck-at the American box office.
I didn’t think of The Four Seasons as wildly successful. (Though when considering the surprising nature of its box office, it’s worth noting that the second top-grossing film of 1981 was On Golden Pond, which skewed even older.) I didn’t think of it as a failure. I merely thought of it as a film that existed, just as Alan Alda’s career as a writer, director, and star of motion pictures existed, then ceased to exist.
If you were to describe someone as an “Alan Alda type” throughout the 1970s, ’80s, or ’90s, odds are, people would know exactly what you meant: socially and politically liberal, feminist, quite possibly vegetarian, a bit of a blowhard, someone who flaunts their politics and righteousness in ways some find admirable, and others find insufferable. Throughout his heyday, Alan Alda reigned as arguably the preeminent Alan Alda type, but the problem with personifying your times so powerfully is that you’re bound to be an anachronism once those times past. History tends to reduce complicated figures to caricatures, and while M*A*S*H is still considered one of the best, most popular sitcoms of all time, a lot of people half-remember it as a show in which Alan Alda pontificated pretentiously about the injustice of war for 22 minutes at a time, sometimes with a laugh track, and sometimes without. M*A*S*H will probably run in syndication until time ceases to exist, but these days, Alda’s concurrent career as a writer and director isn’t all that well-known. Alda was once popular enough to be able to make an astonishingly boring movie like The Four Seasons, his feature-film writing and directing debut, and a handful of follow-ups.
The Four Seasons’ characters are only in their 40s, but they behave with the geriatric, life’s-almost-over exhaustion of folks in their 70s or 80s. It’s not just that they have careers, grown children, and mortgages; they seem to have never been young, or cared about anything that wasn’t boring. Alda stars as Jack Burroughs, a wealthy, successful lawyer married to equally wealthy, successful editor Kate (Carol Burnett). Every year, Jack and Kate vacation with two other couples. Estate planner Nick (Len Cariou) is married to brittle, depressed Anne (Sandy Dennis). Cheap, hypochondriac dentist Danny (Jack Weston) comes with wife Claudia (Rita Moreno), a hothead who justifies every outburst of emotion with a defiant cry of, “I’m Italian!”
The film opens with the couples in a state of middle-aged ecstasy. The ladies are doing whatever it is ladies do (drinking wine and talking about men, mostly), while the men occupy themselves with a stir-fry that has seemingly occupied their every waking thought for weeks. Once, these men dreamed of bedding beautiful women, fighting wars, winning fortunes, and building empires. By the time the film begins, they’ve sublimated all of their ambition, lust, and raging life force into making the best possible stir-fry, one involving two pounds of ginger (two pounds of ginger!) and an altogether excessive number of eggplants. The men have an overwhelmingly orgiastic reaction to devouring this stir-fry. Nick vows, “I’m not just going to eat it, I’m going to make love to it.”
But The Four Seasons is not just about three men cooking, as it appears to be throughout its first act. At dinner that night, Jack raises his glass and offers a toast: “To the reason we are here tonight, not just to celebrate your anniversary, but to that deeper thing that brings us all closer together, to what bonds us and makes us huddle against the cold winds of divorce that have blown through the lives of our friends.” This is what’s known as both foreshadowing and terrible writing. For despite Jack’s grotesquely melodramatic rhetoric, the ominous specter of divorce has secretly already arrived. It takes the form of Nick’s affair with Ginny (Bess Armstrong), a much younger woman who worships Nick and says things like, “I never met anyone who knew so much about actuarial tables.” This is met by a chorus of suppressed groans and rolled eyes from longtime friends who know all too well that Nick is far from the world-conquering dynamo Ginny believes him to be.
Nick’s affair with Ginny destroys his marriage to Anne, an easily flustered neurotic who’s devoted the past few years of her life to photographing fruit, to her husband’s dismay. (Dennis brings a heartbreaking vulnerability to the role, adding more pathos, humanity, and melancholy humor to a single line like “Last week I bought a snake” than Alda does to his entire performance.) Yet just when the film briefly threatens to become interesting, Ginny disappears, never to return. Alda perversely jettisons the film’s most/only interesting character, while diligently preserving the overwhelming resentment the group of friends feel toward Nick for dumping Anne and threatening to destroy their friendship’s fragile ecosystem.
The problem is that The Four Seasons expects viewers to be emotionally invested in friendships and relationships not worth saving. The men in The Four Seasons are terrible. Nick is a horny egomaniac who fucks his much-younger lover on the same boat where his friends are bemoaning the ineffable middle-agedness of their existence. Danny is a paranoid cheapskate and hypochondriac who stews over perceived slights and broods to his wife that the people who profess to be his friends are vicious and ill. In what qualifies as one of the few out-and-out jokes in the screenplay, Jack calls Danny “the Muhammad Ali of mental illness.” But Jack is no prize himself.
Jack embodies everything insufferable about Alan Alda types, and about Alan Alda. He lectures. He serves as a self-appointed moral arbiter. He angrily confronts Nick with stiffly worded statements like, “I happen to know you betrayed your wife dozens of times.” Upon learning that Nick and Ginny are having children, Jack, in his apparent role as everyone’s dad, asks Nick, “You’re 43 years old. You’re going to start having babies?” Because apparently in 1981, men who had exceeded the age of 40—if only by a few years—were considered on the precipice of death, and consequently unqualified to have children.
As the film progresses, the wonderland of the first scenes—where the ostensibly happy couples laughed and laughed for no discernible reason, ate from the same loaf of bread without even slicing it first, and made that magical stir-fry—slips further away, and the couples are forced to confront the fact that they don’t really like each other anymore. However, it’s never entirely clear why they liked each other in the first place (beyond the stir-fry that brought them all so much joy), so the dissolution of their friendship doesn’t have the emotional resonance it should.
Perhaps what audiences responded to at the time of The Four Seasons’ success was the film’s acknowledgment that friendships often deteriorate with time, to the point where they sometimes no longer seem worth salvaging. There are moments of painful truth scattered throughout, like a speech late in the film when Kate says she’s already seen so many friendships fall by the wayside for one reason or another, but that she can’t stand the idea of losing what’s left, because, “When I get old, I would like for you all to be there.”
At the core of The Four Seasons lies the characters’ poignant desire to avoid alienating all their friends, or losing them by failing to fight against divorce, aging, geography, or a million other variables that separate people. The Four Seasons is tediously middle-aged without being particularly mature. It wants to comment on the way age and circumstance affect friendship, but it does so with only a fraction of the wit and intelligence of, say, The World’s End, which explored similar subject matter far more compellingly through the prism of a science-fiction allegory.
The Four Seasons connected with audiences in 1981, but history hasn’t been kind to it. Ultimately, the film’s fatal sin is not being so middle-aged, or even being populated by unlikeable characters. Its fatal sin is being boring. The Four Seasons is the antithesis of what Quentin Tarantino called the “hangout movie”; it’s a film populated by characters so unbearable, viewers may desperately crave the the permanent vacation from them that the end credits provide.
Despite The Four Seasons’ commercial success, Alda’s career as a cinematic auteur was short-lived, lasting through just three more films: 1986’s Sweet Liberty, 1988’s A New Life, and 1990’s Betsy’s Wedding. That’s the drawback to playing such an iconic role: With Alda, there was M*A*S*H and then there was everything else. Despite being the ninth top-grossing film of 1981, The Four Seasons falls unmistakably into the “everything else” pile.