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Alan Alda adds directing to his bag of tricks

With his new movie, The Four Seasons, Alan Alda becomes a triple threat. A longtime actor and sometime screenwriter -- including his last picture, "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" -- he now adds directing to his bag of tricks.

And pretty good tricks they are. "The Four Seasons" is a friendly film, with high spirits and good intentions. I only regret that it lapses into vulgarity at times, and that its limits are so narrow -- cramping the characters, and undermining its own attitudes. If you don't agree with Alda's assumptions about the basic cheeriness of modern life, you won't find much to admire here. But if you can sympathize with the social momentum that keeps the characters going no matter what, you'll enjoy their antics.

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The story centers on three married couples, all middleaged and locked into the same sort of lives. They have been friends forever, and Alda plunges us into their camaraderie, following them through the four seasons of the year, accompanied by the "Four Seasons" of Vivaldi -- baroque music being a must for today's Hollywood heartwarmers after the Vivaldi of "Kramer vs. Kramer" and the Pachelbel of "Ordinary People."

The characters have lots of fun, and they tackle a few problems. The worst crisis happens when one of the gang (Len Carion) divorces his wife (Sandy Dennis) and marries a sweet young thing (Bess Armstrong) who's toom young, and possibly too sweet, to fit in with the others. The issues here are real and poignant: Does the group stay loyal to Sandy Dennis, now launched on a new life of her own, or shift to Bess Armstrong, who seems like a nice kid? Alda doesn't probe the situation very deeply, and he allows its sexual overtones to lapse into bad taste. But the basic dilemma is true to life, as they say, and easy to identify with. "The Four Seasons" is involving even when it fails to get below the surface of its romantic peccadillos.

The film would have more resonance if it weren't so keen on entertaining us all the time. I have no quarrel with fun, but we never see these people at work , or even at home, wrestling with the tedium of everyday life. Alda whisks us from one vacation or outing to another, painting the entire picture in the cozy colors of sun, sea, and snow. We don't even see the couples asm couples: They're a perpetual menage a six, wholesome enough, but so homogenized that even the characters begin to complain after a while.

It's a very calculated picture, really, with every "spontaneous" effect programmed within an inch of tis life, and a hopelessly hokey finale. Don't expect profundity, or even the carefully contrived angst of a "Kramer" or an "Ordinary People." Instead, look for a lot more laughs than Hollywood "people pictures" usually offer. Alda has kept his sense of humor, and his TV roots have paid off, too: The level of ensemble acting is high, as on the better prime-time sitcoms. It's no "MASH," but there are quite a few chuckles among the many sighs and occasional tears.

The cast is eclectic and experienced. Jack Weston is splendidly rotund and ridiculous, as a hypychondriac dentist wedded to the feisty Rita Moreno. Carol Burnett is just right as Alda's wife -- the most surprisingly modulated performance of the season, after Barbra Streisand's fine showing in "All Night Long." Len Cariou fares quite well as the "villain" of the bunch. Only Sandy Dennis seems out of her depth this time, giving a frantically mannered performance that climaxes in an embarrassing speech about a snake.

Alda himself is appealing, as usual, as the pivotal character. But the role suffers from his overeagerness to please: The script keeps insisting he has faults, like everyone else, but it turns out his worst failing is that when he's angry, he "analyzes" instead of blowing his top. The character, the movie, and Alda's artistry would all be in better shape if he had contented himself with a less saintly position in the lineup.

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