During the 1970's Alan Alda built a huge following – and reputation – playing the wise-cracking humanitarian surgeon 'Hawkeye' Pierce in the long-running TV series M*A*S*H. For a while he was the world's favourite idealistic, right-thinking liberal. Obviously the big screen beckoned and Alda made key appearances in Same Time, Next Year and California Suite.
Not content with this, Alda wrote a vehicle for himself, The Seduction of Joe Tynan which proved very popular. Becoming recognised as something of an 'auteur', Alda not only wrote The Four Seasons, but directed and cast his daughters in two secondary roles.
The story concerns three New York couples: Alan Alda and Carol Burnett as Jack and Kate Burroughs; Len Cariou and Sandy Dennis as Nick and Anne Callan, and; Jack Weston and Rita Moreno as Danny and Claudia Zimmer. For years these couples have holidayed together four times every year, every season in fact. On one spring break Len makes an announcement that will alter the dynamics of the group and test old loyalties and friendships: he is bored with Anne, never really loved her, and intends to divorce her.
The following summer, the couples charter a sailing yacht to the Bahamas. Everything is as before, except Len is now with Ginny (Bess Armstrong), a younger, rather naïve, girlfriend. Their noisy and enthusiastic love-making both irritates the two other couples and starts some questions about how the nature of love changes over time. In an effort to rediscover their passion Danny and Claudia copy Len and Ginny's habit of nude bathing.
In autumn the couples meet up again to visit a university town in Connecticut where the Burroughs and Callan daughters are studying. Awkwardly, Anne Callan is also there and in the same hotel. She says she feels betrayed by Kate and Claudia who have drifted away from her since she parted from Nick. Meanwhile, the two daughters, from being inseparable at school, have also drifted apart at college as their interests develop on different lines and Lisa Callan (Beatrice Alda) has fallen into depression over her parents' divorce.
Finally, winter, and a holiday in a New England ski resort. Macho competitiveness leads Jack and Nick to the local hospital with strained ligaments and a broken ankle. Visiting a local inn, Danny confesses to having obsessive-compulsive thoughts to handle his fear of illness and dying. Most of the group laugh derisively and only Ginny shows him any understanding. Returning to their ski lodge Ginny tells Kate that Danny deserves more support. Kate tells her she can never understand the group as she is just an interloper. Ginny snaps and tells the group she has tried to intergate with them tactfully but is still rejected and runs off into the night. The next morning, Danny (the only able-bodied male) goes to search for Ginny and falls through the ice covering a near-by lake. Only a group effort saves his life.
The first thing to say about the film is that it looks great. The four seasons are shown in all their splendour from the green shoots of spring, the warmth of summer, the lush colours of the New England autumn and crisp winter snows.
Dramatically, however, the film simply does not ring true. If three couples have remained friends for so long (and, in truth, how many friendships do last this long?) and one of them separated it would always be the man who was excluded, not the wife. Out of loyalty to another woman (and out of fear for their own relatiosnhips), the other wives would side with her, and out of loyalty to their wives the husbands would follow suit. They would not invite the former husband and his new girlfriend to take the place of the missing spouse.
The whole exercise comes over as a Woody Allen pastiche. It's about relationships, where people talk through their feelings. OK, fine, but there comes a time when, watching these upper-class professionals (lawyer, dentist, insurance/real estate exec, magazine editor) talk through their feelings you want to shout at them that some people (not too far from Manhattan) have real problems, like keeping a roof over their head and getting enough for their families to eat.
Alda is so determined to teach us something about the human condition, about ourselves, that the dialogue comes over as glib and contrived rather than witty and insightful. It doesn't help that one of the couples (Weston and Moreno) seems to lack any chemistry whatever and nothing seen by the audience explains what keeps them together.
As a writer, Alda also seems to lack the ability to bring scenes to a satisfying dramatic peak, something always seems to be left hanging in the air and things just tail off. As a director he has a good eye for the landscape and composition, but sometimes lets his actors indulge themselves and go over the top.
In its approach and its situations this is very much a film of its time and has not aged well. Diehard Alan Alda fans will lap it up, but more dispassionate viewers will find it rather pretentious: the comedy forced and unfunny, and the drama lacking real weight and rather empty.
Having said that, the film was the 9th highest grossing production of 1981, returning over $50m on a $6.5m budget, so it obviously struck a chord with a huge number of people.