It's all too easy to imagine "The Four Seasons" being embraced with affection by a middle-class public yearning for self-congratulatory bromides, particularly when the soothing dose is administered with a twinkly bedside manner. Directing from his own screenplay, Alan Alda displays an alarming aptitude for the comedy of manners at its most trifling and synthetic. a
Alda no doubt aspires toward a sincere form of social comedy, ideally amusing and profound. The promising early hints that he might be inspired by superior models -- Paul Mazursky ("Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice") and Claude Sautet ("Vincent, Francois, Paul and Others") -- soon evaporate and are replaced by unrelenting platitudes.
With appropriate musical introductions from Vivaldi, Alda attempts to trace a critical year in the friendships of three middle-aged, upper-middle-class New York couples who spend every vacation and free weekend together. The episodic structure, which begins with a springtime gathering at a lodge in the countryside and then reunits the friends for a summer cruise, a fall visit to their children at college and a ski trip the next winter, creates a funny impression that Alda fails to develop satirically: These people seem to be on everlasting holiday. f
Alda and Carol Burnett play the respectale, stable sterotypes, Jack and Kate Burroughs. He is a lawyer, she, and editor for Fortune magazine. A disproportionate share of comic relief devolves on the wacky combination of dentist Danny Zimmer (Jack Weston) and his voluble Italian-American wife Claudia (Rita Moreno), who is a painter. The first episode is rationalized as a 20th wedding anniversary party for the third couple in the set -- insurance salesman Nick Callan (Len Cariou) and his flaky, dilettantish wife Anne (Sandy Dennis).
It comes as no great surprise when the Callans are revealed to be the weak link in the marital chain. What is disillusioning is Alda's inability to depict undercurrents of tension. There's no hint that anything is amiss until Nick confides his dissatisfaction to Jack. The news that his friend is an unhappily married man so astounds Jack that one is obliged to wonder about the powers of observation possessed by both Alda and the character he portrays.
After seven years of close palship, surely a whiff of discontent might have drifted Jack's way. Moreover, why cast an actress as weirdly mannered as Sandy Dennis if you don't intent to suggest that Anne's embarrassing qualities stick out like a sore thumb?
The awkwardness with which Alda introduces the disruptive element is magnified in the second episode. Nick, having split with Anne, joins the other couples on a Caribbean cruise with a surprise companion, his adoring young mistress Ginny (Bess Armstrong). After grousing about the sexual athleticism of Nick and Ginny, who come through loud and clear in the confined quarters of a smallish yacht accommodating six people, Jack and Kate and Danny and Claudia are won over by the new alliance.
But why? It seems unlikely that Kate and Claudia would countenance a vacation in the company of Nick and his mistress if they felt any genuine concern about Anne. The only credible explanation for this get-together once again suggests satiric possibilities ignored by the author -- the Burroughses and Zimmers must have been loathe to take a financial loss on their share of the yacht rental.
The idea that the collapse of the Callan marriage would upset their friends is immediately subverted by the ease with which Anne is replaced and Ginny accepted. The substitution occurs with absurd and unseemly haste. It also exposes the Pollyannaish side of Alda's mentality. Despite their feeling for middle-class camaraderie, filmmakers like Mazursky and Sautet are aware of gnawing tensions and discontents. Alda reflects a blandy affirmative, therapeutic outlook which also seems curiously out of place in this eastern setting.
Everyone, Anne included, is supposed to adjust with a mminimum of emotional distress. The worst form of behavior in this context would be a refusal to Go With the Flow, an insistence on Holding a Grudge against, Nick. Alda takes his own character gently to task for pontificating about relationships, but Jack still ends up as a smug mouthpiece for all the non-judgmental pieties. The conversational stream overflows with understanding, tolerant remarks:
"Why don't we just say what we feel?"
"If you could just realize what a terrific person you are, you wouldn't get so upset."
"You are alive, you have your life, and we all love you, so shut up!"
Alda just won't quit with the pacifying drivel. He's unable to differentiate between speakers or use self-deluding can't with humorous irony. The exchanges in "The Four Seasons" just make everyone sound equally dippy. This might be a better script for Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue.
As the star of TV's "M*A*S*H," Alda has built up an enormous reservoir of good will. Nevertheless, "The Four Seasons" reveals the banality of his Nice Side in a way that could eventually poison the reservoir.