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Michael Apted's 'Continental Divide'; Comedy from a 'refreshingly positive' director

Continental Divide, the new comedy with John Belushi, has as many peaks and valleys as the Rocky Mountains. On the down side, it moves rather slowly, its laughs are intermittent, and its rhythms are a bit slack. On the up side, however, it has the virtues of its maker -- Michael Apted, who gave us "Coal Miner's Daughter" not long ago.

He is a refreshingly positive director who likes to show nice people doing nice things. Here he offers a crusading Chicago newspaperman (Belushi) who goes to the Rockies for a story, and falls in love with a naturalist (Blair Brown) hooked on mountain air and bald eagles. It's an unlikely romance between a city slicker and a rural romantic, but Apted makes it real by bringing out both sides of the issue -- the genuine love between them and the conflict that's caused by their dedication to personal ideals. Few movies have defined male or female characters so convincingly in terms of their work, their interests, and their professional aspirations.

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During a recent interview in New York, director Apted confirmed his commitment to positive filmmaking, admitting that he has misgivings about his good rock movie "Stardust" because of its graphic glimpses into the gloomy side of celebrityhood. More and more, he believes in comedy. But he wants to "take comedy seriously," he says -- getting chuckles by "showing reality, not just assinine characters and pratfalls."

He also likes the "warmth" of "Coal Miner's Daughter" and his new movie. "There's a nihilistic, negative quality to so many of today's films," he opines. "Yet audiences like responding to warm characters, and I enjoy stories that allow this to happen." He and Belushi worked especially hard on the newsman character in "Continental Divide," who could easily have seemed sour or cynical. "We tried to hit it just right -- not too broad, not too laid back," says the director. "He had to be funny, but in a real way, not a foolish and caricatured way."

The screenplay for "Continental Divide" was written by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote "The Empire Strikes Back" and directed "Body Heat" from his own script. After joining the project, Apted presided over a major rewriting, to bring out as much humor as possible. Through it all, though, the emphasis was on treating the characters as grownups and the situations as real, if far-fetched. Apted's commitment to commitmentm is reflected in the climax, when the heroes actually get married -- no longer the rule in Hollywood's happy endings, but right in tune with the director's insistence that comedies can be resolved in harmony as well as humor.

Raised in England and trained in television, Apted conquered the American movie scene with "Coal Miner's Daughter" and tackled the same territory in his new movie. Next will come "The Color Man," about an injured football star who becomes a TV announcer -- a naive Candide in the hardboiled world of mass media. It's another unusual subject, to be treated with healthy doses of humor. Marked by consistency as well as cleverness, Apted's career is clearly and decisively launched.

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