When a star dies prematurely, it’s easy to wonder where their career might have gone. This is particularly the case when, as with John Belushi, their existing filmography is fairly small. Belushi starred in a scant seven feature films — and that’s only if we count his nearly-wordless bit part in Goin’ South. Continental Divide, released in 1981 under director Michael Apted, was the penultimate film to star Belushi, preceding his final film Neighbors by only three months. Neighbors flipped the usual Belushi/Aykroyd roles by having Belushi play the straight man to Aykroyd’s obnoxious interloper, but Continental Divide does away with the manic performances altogether.
While a comedy, it’s a film that indicates that Belushi could perhaps have gone into dramatic roles had he lived longer. Continental Divide is a romantic comedy, but not quite as they’re usually scripted today. It’s more of a throwback to the romantic comedies of the 1940s, where kismet takes a back seat to a pair of strong leads. Today’s rom-coms often depict the lead couple as being fated to get together except for a few minor peccadilloes. Continental Divide, much like some of the old Cary Grant films, instead posits a pairing that seems as though they were never meant to meet in the first place.
Belushi plays Ernie Souchak, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. He’s been working hard at exposing a corrupt local politician, and this eventually lands him in the hospital following a beating from corrupt police officers. His editor, fearing that Souchak is going to get himself killed if he sticks around, pushes him into leaving the city to do a story on Nell Porter (Blair Brown), an ornithologist doing research on the then-endangered bald eagles. Two different forms of inevitability unfold once Souchak arrives in the Rockies. First, Belushi bumbles around awkwardly and comically, as Souchak has no clue what he’s doing up there. And second, the Chicagoite reporter and the mountaineering researcher fall in love.
The story works for a few reasons. First is that although this is definitely a case of “opposites attract”, it’s not hard to see why they find each other attractive. Souchak, while brash, is not Bluto Blutarsky in a reporter’s hat. He’s highly intelligent, considerate, and laughs at adversity — handy, since he faces a lot of it. Nell is also highly intelligent, compassionate, and exceptionally self-sufficient. While opposites, there’s a sense that the two of them are equals.
The other reason the story works is that although it’s a love story, and love conquers all… it is by no means an easy conquest. And wonder of wonders, the primary obstacle is one that is not only a major hurdle, it’s a natural one, instead of some contrived minor misunderstanding. While equals, they are opposites, and the problems of opposites are brought into play. They are equals, but only in their own respective environments. Nell can come into Chicago to deliver a speech to a roomful of scientists, but she’s only at home in the mountains. That’s where her work is, that is where she built her life; in the city, she is without purpose. Ernie is a guy who, by his own admission, had never previously left Chicago. He’s a mover and shaker in the city, but is ill-equipped for life outside of it. After the fun of watching Ernie struggle to live in the mountains for his story on Nell, the film boldly addresses the problem that so many “opposites attract” stories ignore: neither of them belongs in the other’s world. They can’t be together and be fully themselves at the same time.
Examining this problem makes the film more robust than most romantic comedies. Handling even that aspect with some humor makes it enjoyable from start to finish. While it won’t give the wild laughs of Animal House or The Blues Brothers, Continental Divide will still get most viewers to smile, both from being humorous and from being heartwarming. And Belushi and Brown both deliver strong performances of strong characters.